Tuesday, November 30, 2004


The Perfect Neighborhood? (part 1)

Is there such thing as a perfect neighborhood? Usually, when I pose this question it is frequently answered with a resounding “yes.” Which is then usually followed up with a generic supporting statement like, “my neighborhood is perfect because it is so safe,” or “this must be a great neighborhood because all the streets are clean, and all the houses and lawns are so well taken care of,” or the ultimate, “my neighborhood is perfect because I don’t have to drive that far to go shopping or to take the kids to school.”

Though safety, cleanliness, and short driving distances (shouldn't we prefer walking to transit?) represent positive aspects of neighborhoods, they are merely a small part which does not represent the whole. Thus, I fear that these types of responses signify a high tolerance for bad development, if not a completely misinformed idea of what comprises quality neighborhoods and districts. Lesson number one: No neighborhood is perfect, nor should it be. Thus, the previous question was a trick.

As Jane Jacobs says, any neighborhood worth its weight in praise should always be evolving, and evolving slowly. A neighborhood that does not evolve is static, and therefore lacks the essential mechanisms that are intrinsic to social and cultural progress. Feel free to disagree with me, but I am a hard fast Darwinist. Creationists be damned, evolution happens, which means that all organisms, natural or otherwise, need to change to improve and adapt. This is why generic single use, single income, single family suburban cul-de-sac “neighborhood” enclaves fail miserably.

Unfortunately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which is what concerns me. Americans have been force fed this tired “American Dream” that implores that happiness can only be obtained by owning a single family home, in an all-single family development, with an all-American car (or SUV), in an all- American suburb. Over fifty years of market proven success has fueled (pun intended) this unrealistic dream, almost to the point of no return. Luckily, there is hope. America is changing, but mostly because it has to.

When the economic catastrophe known as an energy crisis emerges from the dark shadow that has been cast by the soon to be outmoded American Dream, America will cognitively realize that suburbia has been the BIGGEST misallocation of social, political, environmental, and financial resources that human civilization has ever witnessed (Kunstler).

When this dawning takes place, America’s “leaders,” A.K.A government, will realize what a large mistake subsidizing suburbia was. Hopefully, this will elicit an “oh shit” response and the massive mis-investment of the past fifty years will shift from the wholly unsustainable paradigms of our car culture to a more prudent and intelligent allocation of resources that will encourage sound social, environmental, and social investment. What would this look like?

First of all, we would stop subsidizing the destructive disease known as sprawl by creating tax incentives for fat cat developers to reuse existing or underutilized neighborhoods. This is already happening in some places, but it needs to happen in more. Sadly, most Americans with the power to enact change don't do anything progressive, unless there is some sort of financial or personal incentive.

Second, we would stop pretending that cheap oil will fuel (literally) our economy forever. This second realization will force our unbelievably wealthy nation to focus our efforts on lifestyles that do not revolve around the automobile. We must also stop planning for the continued use of the automobile on such a large scale. Continuing to invest billions in highway expansion is like pulling out a shotgun and shooting yourself in the foot.

Third, we would stop pretending that big box stores, conventions centers, and stadiums are a panacea for economic downturn and neighborhood devolution. Real wealth is created and maintained in diverse urban, suburban, and rural enclaves that encourage economic, social, environmental, and cultural diversity. This means creating environments that are welcoming to businesses, public places, and social institutions that value the exchange of ideas. Such an exchange should function first on a local scale so as to not depend wholly on the whimsical nature of a tourism/service based economy.

As author and social critic James Howard Kunstler has said repeatedly, the energy crisis will cause globalism to go in reverse. This change of direction will hurt America a lot, especially if Americans do not change their energy sucking, land consuming, and money-squelching habits.

Nevertheless, we are lucky that good neighborhoods and districts still exist. Much thanks to the new urbanists who have not only “rediscovered” and canonized the principles of good placemaking, but also created plenty of new working models that should be read as “Good Neighborhoods for Dummies.” What this means is that we have plenty of positive models to learn from. We know how to build good blocks, neighborhoods, towns, and cities. We just need to do it more.

Fortunately, Americans know about these places, and even pay large sums of money to visit them on vacation. It’s just time that Americans realize that their own “good neighborhood” in generic anyplace U.S.A can actually be transformed into a real evolving neighborhood worth caring about. For this to happen it is essential that people demand change. Will this happen? Probably not as quickly as it should.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


An' Another Thing

Like Weymouth, I think the New Station Landing development in Medford, MA ( http://www.bankerandtradesman.com/pub/4_153/residential/188727-1.html) is another classic example of smart growth mislabled as new urbanism. Like I said in the previous entry(http://newurbanprogress.blogspot.com), there has to be some distinction. New urbanism is smart growth, but smart growth is not new urbanism.

In this case, I would say that New Station Landing is a vast improvement over a suburban office park, or strip mall, but it seems like its going to fail miserably with housing choices. Note all the "market rate" and "quality high end residential" comments within the article. This development isn't even pretending to cater to the middle class. With no mention of affordable housing, it leads me to believe that there will clearly be no low-income units, or affordable housing units with a price cap.

Housing choice, as in the mixture of housing types that welcome a true array of incomes is a CENTRAL tenet of new urbanism. Moreover, the single income monoculture that might result from such a development will drive up real estate prices around this site. The end result is a very posh development with little to no environmental impact (smart growth), but a less than diverse urban population (new urbanism) that makes good places great.

I'm not completely against gentrification. In fact, I agree with new urbanism founding father, Andres Duany, that gentrification needs to happen to some extent so that developers and investors will make money back on their investments and the neighborhood remains stable. But to me, this development is another upscale project that will price out the lower and middle income members of what is now a working class community. Let's not forget Jane Jacobs. Diversity makes great streets, blocks, neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

Don't get me wrong, I think the Station Landing development is another exciting example that developers in New England are starting to "get it." But, who is going to live over those retail shops on the lower floors? Not the shop owners and employees. -Mike

Saturday, November 20, 2004


Good TOD vs. Bad TOD

Transit oriented development (TOD), which seeks to place all new growth within walking distance of public transit, is one of the few new urbanist "buzzword" concepts that has successfully made the crossover to the more mainstream smart growth movement. The popularity of this concept can now be seen in the painfully bureaucratic state of Massachusetts, which now champions the idea that all future growth should be focused in TOD areas. Cheers TOD (40R).

However, though it is truly exciting to see that new urbanist terms and concepts are being utilized by mainstream planning entities, TOD actually has a history as dark and dastardly as the interstate highway system. Check it out.

TOD has been around for more than a half century and has played an essential role in incubating and nurturing the infectious American disease known as sprawl. You know, those gluttonous traffic/pollution/tax-raising/culture destroying developments that continue to cheapen and ravage the American landscape. TOD traces its origins back to when President Dwight Eisenhower decided in 1956 to fully fund a little program called the Federal Aid Highway Act. As a result, every highway rest-stop, every interstate Howard Johnson, and every highway exit that funnels onto collector roads laden with tacky big box store infested "power centers", is now indeed a TOD. It's just car-transit oriented development (please do not call this COD, as I am not attempting to further trivialize new urbanism), as opposed to the enlightened public transit oriented development. Think Bad TOD vs. Good TOD.

Bad TOD and all its culture homogenizing debauchery would be virtually non-existent if, while serving in World War II, Ike hadn't fallen so deeply in love with Hitler's Autobahn. Sure, the interstate highway system might be the greatest public works project in world history, but like the Autobahn that was used to help Hitler in his attempt to homogenize Europe, the US version has homogenized American culture. Thanks Ike. (I don't fully blame the guy, how could he possible anticipate what happened?)

The reason why I am pointing out what may seem like a re-hashed rumination on suburbia is that as of late, "TOD/new urbanism" and "smart growth" are terms that part of the development community have co-opted and used to sell their best laid development schemes. Thus, there needs to be some distinction between Bad TOD and Good TOD, because too many people seem happy to just throw Good TOD around all willy nilly, without actually understanding its intricacies.

BAD TOD - The redevelopment plan for a defunct Naval airbase in Weymouth, Massachusetts (http://www.thevillagecenterplan.com) is being marketed and touted by the developer, Lennar Partners, as a TOD smart growth development. A local newspaper has gone as far as to call it a new urbanist community(http://ledger.southofboston.com/articles/2004/10/16/news/news05.txt). Blasphemy. Though the plan is not the entirely car dependent TOD model of the last fifty years, its still not an effective TOD.

In a recent meeting a group of concerned urbanists analyzed the Weymouth redevelopment plan thoroughly. What was readily apparent to us was that though the plan maintains a healthy amount of protected open space (smart growth), the "TOD" portion of the plan is very weak. True, the site is very fortunate to be directly adjacent to a MBTA commuter rail stop, but the actual plan places a very small proportion of the total amount of housing/ commercial development within a comfortable walking distance of the actual transit stop (for comfortable walking distance think 1/4 to 1/2 mile), which makes this a hard sell for Good TOD. In fact, the majority of the development is located in suburban-esque pods on the other side of the base from the transit stop, where a "shuttle bus" is supposed to ferry people back and forth to the town center and transit station. Moreover, the transit stop and the edge of the naval base are located right next to a major south shore-Boston collector road corridor that already produces traffic nightmares.

Peter Calthorpe, CNU Charter Member, might call the entire plan a secondary neighborhood. That is, the portion of a good TOD neighborhood that is adjacent to the town center and all the primary uses of a Good TOD. Secondary neighborhoods are needed in TOD's, especially as they mature, but they need to serve as an equitable balance with the density needed to support the town center and the actual transit stop. In this case, the secondary neighborhood is the majority of the plan, and its too far away from the transit. It's like they have the right idea, but the wrong plan.

The plan simply does not achieve the required density. Moreover, in such a car dependent society where a large percentage of all car trips are less than 3 miles, most citizens in this development will most likely drive to the "town center" and to the transit stop. Hell, if you actually look at the plan you will see that there is plenty of parking for doing so. In fact, most of the town center is comprised of parking lots that are not shielded from the primary "A" streets. Ugh.

In conclusion, I agree that aspects of the plan certainly encourage smart growth. Certainly the planned development is lucky to have an existing transit stop, and the plan could actually be a lot worse. But overall the development is not a good TOD, and it is certainly not an example of new urbanism.

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