Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Constructing a New Urbanist movie town outside of Atlanta

Going up around a one-stop movie filming and production facility outside of Atlanta is a New Urbanist community named Trilith.

Google Maps

When the British film studio company Pinewood opened a production facility outside Atlanta in 2014, it framed the venture as a one-stop-shop alternative to the mature but spatially fragmented system in Hollywood. With a high-tech media center, soundstages, offices, prop houses, and set builders all colocated, Pinewood Atlanta was a turnkey space for filming. An early relationship with Marvel Studios led to a steady stream of big-budget superhero movies such as Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War, and Pinewood Atlanta quickly became a contender in the film business.

But some of its local investors wanted it to be more than just a production facility. They wanted the entire business to have a place at the studios, with development of new shows happening where they’d eventually be filmed, and local workers able to easily commute to jobs on the site, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. So they decided to build a town…

Pinewood recently left the project, amiably, and the studio and town are now fully in the hands of local founders, who have accelerated Trilith’s development, which broke ground two years ago. Planned with New Urbanist design principles, Trilith is a dense, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use village, with a commercial town center, more than half of its area dedicated to green space and forest, and room for an eventual population of 5,000. About 500 people are currently living in the town, which is planned to have a total of 1,400 townhomes, apartments, cohousing units, and 500-square-foot “microhomes.” Housing is available to rent or buy, and Trilith’s developers say it’s luring residents from within the film industry as well as people from other walks of life…

Parker says the town was inspired by Seaside, a New Urbanist community in Florida famous for its use as the setting of The Truman Show. Trilith was designed by the Atlanta-based planning firm Lew Oliver, with homes designed and built by companies such as 1023 Construction and Brightwater Homes. Parker says the design was intended to appeal to young creatives, with an emphasis on wellness and access to the outdoors, but with the kinds of amenities people want in a town. The first of the town’s restaurants recently opened, and 11 more are in the works. A 60,000-square-foot fitness studio was recently completed, and a K-12 school is already open.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the film industry and the town continues. On one hand, it could create a regular level of business and residents. On the other hand, not everyone in the community will be involved and interests could collide. Will this be like other suburbs and communities that rely heavily on one industry or sector (with both the advantages and disadvantages that come with this)?
  2. Later portions of the article discuss the diversity of residents in the community. Seaside looks good on film but has been more of a wealthy community than one that lives up to its New Urbanist principles of having mixed-income housing and residents. Will the desirability of such a community drive up housing costs? Will the connection to the film industry make it more difficult to others to move in?
  3. Does this provide a new model for numerous industries? For example, prior to COVID-19 big tech firms had constructed large, all-encompassing headquarters intended in part to help keep workers close. Or, large office buildings in central areas help consolidate workers and multiple sectors. But, perhaps this New Urbanist vision provides an alternative: more space in the suburbs, film facilities, other opportunities in the town outside of film.

Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

Connecting urban planning and coping with COVID-19

McMansions might provide a lot of space for sheltering in space but an urban planner in Australia says neighborhoods of McMansions did not do as well during COVID-19:

bird s eye view of town

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McMansion-dwellers in suburbs far from jobs and services and uninviting to pedestrians fared badly during shutdowns, says a prominent Perth urban planner; meanwhile, residents in self-sufficient neighbourhoods with compact homes were much better equipped…

“Those in low-density neighbourhoods find it easier to stay at home, but they are forced to leave regularly in their cars for essential services and goods,” he said…

“For just $80,000, a home owner can build a 40-square-metre micro-workspace or granny flat that could assist a business to start up, or house essential workers – nurses, teachers or police – who often cannot afford to live in a McMansion,” he said…

Communities needed well-connected, shaded, pedestrian-friendly streets, front porches facilitating casual social exchanges while allowing social distancing, and walkable town centres with offices, restaurants, beach facilities and apartments.

It is interesting to compare this assessment to discussions in the United States. In places like New York City and San Francisco, journalists have reported on the move of wealthier residents away from density and to the suburbs. In these narratives, suburban homes and communities provide larger residences and more distance from others.

Yet, in the argument above, it sounds like the urban planner is arguing for New Urbanist-style suburbs as the middle ground: walkable places that offer some density and local community are better for dealing with COVID-19 that either really dense places or isolated suburban communities.

This might depend on what the highest priority is during COVID-19. If the goal is avoiding other people, public places, and mass transit all together so as not to catch the coronavirus, then neighborhoods of suburban McMansions could make sense. People today can have all sorts of goods delivered. And if suburban life is about moral minimalism, McMansions allow everyone lots of space. If the goal is to balance interacting with people and society alongside practicing social distancing, traditionally-designed suburbs could make more sense. Isolation takes a toll on people, COVID-19 or not.

Arguments like the one above are common among some urban planners, architects, and urbanists: neighborhoods full of suburban tract homes do not provide for community life and social interaction, depend on cars and limit opportunities for other forms of transportation, and waste resources. Whether COVID-19 helps advance this perspective remains to be seen.

 

Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be there

The 2000 book Suburban Nation is a New Urbanist declaration. It includes this argument regarding the public and private realms in the United States:

Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal. (41)

This comes amidst a discussion of the suburban single-family home, one of the most attractive features of suburbia for Americans. American homes are large, providing plenty of space for occupants, a range of activities, and vehicles. They can be filled with all sorts of consumer goods, from electronics to clothes to media to equipment for hobbies. Through the Internet and other connected devices, occupants can access all sorts of information, videos, music, and other parts of the world. The homes can be the single largest investment for many. They are often separated from other dwellings (or at most share a wall or two). For decades, Americans have promoted, built, and purchased such homes.

All of this may be good for many Americans but what do these private realms feel like when the occupants cannot leave? It is one thing to choose these private spaces; it is another to be pushed by outside forces to stay in them. With the spread of COVID-19, people are being encouraged to stay home. Does “the finest private realm” become confining when one cannot easily leave?

We are about to find out. Even if Americans might prefer their private realms, some might miss the public realm or the easy opportunities to visit other private realms (such as stores and shopping malls). This may not lead to a revival of public spaces but it might remind some homeowners that the private realm has limitations.

A way to fight app directed through traffic: cul-de-sacs

The suburbs are full of of cul-de-sacs. Homeowners might prefer them because of the quiet and the space that they allow for kids and vehicles. They can help developers and builders fit more houses into spaces.

At the same time, cul-de-sacs may be the bane of New Urbanism as neighborhoods with many of them do not have a consistent street grid and they are primarily lined by private single-family homes. One video promoting New Urbanism put it this way: The greatest threat to our planet is…

CuldeSacsfromBuilttoLast

Yet, cul-de-sacs do provide one additional advantage in today’s world. They can limit the effectiveness of Waze and other traffic or mapping apps: cars and traffic cannot cut through cul-de-sacs. I saw this argument recently in a 2001 newspaper article where a suburban leader said they had restricted commercial development to main roads and highways and the high percentage cul-de-sacs and loops among the residential roads kept neighborhoods quiet. With more cul-de-sacs, more traffic is routed to arterial roads, streets that can usually accommodate more volume. Cul-de-sacs help make residential neighborhoods harder to navigate; I can think of several residential neighborhoods in my area that make it very difficult to find your way through if you are not familiar with it because of the winding roads and dead ends.

New Urbanists would argue that this is not ideal: more cars on arterial roads is going to lead to more congestion (as opposed to a grid system that provides drivers lots of options), arterial roads may be less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and we should be working to reduce driving anyhow rather than planning communities around cul-de-sacs that depend on cars.

Speed bumps, roadside speed monitors, and other devices might not be enough to stop through traffic in residential neighborhoods. Permanent cul-de-sacs could do the trick – but at a cost to the overall fabric of the neighborhood and community.

Prince Charles as New Urbanist?

With the British royals in the news lately, I encountered Prince Charles’ current project adding to a Cornish town:

Nansledan is an extension to the Cornish coastal town of Newquay on Duchy of Cornwall land that embodies the principles of architecture and urban planning championed by HRH The Prince of Wales.

The Prince has long been concerned with the quality of the natural and built environment, urging a return to sustainable human-scale development that is land-efficient, uses low-carbon materials and is less car dependant. His vision is to plan connected urban centres where mixed-income housing, shops, offices and leisure facilities combine so that daily needs can be met within walkable neighbourhoods.

Development should enhance the quality of life, strengthen the bonds of community and place, and give people a sense of pride in where they live. Buildings should look as if they belong in the landscape, drawing on regional traditional styles, where the use of local materials and craftsmanship is vital to the aesthetic and the local economy. Nansledan is all these things, embodying timeless principles that have created enduring communities the length and breadth of Britain.

And from an article written by the Prince of Wales in The Architectural Review:

As traditional thinking teaches, basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by Nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled, on the physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels.

What has concerned me about the design and planning of so many modern built environments during the greater part of the 20th century is that these four interconnecting levels have been completely abandoned and ignored, to the extent that their rediscovery is seen as an exciting revelation. Emphasis has been placed purely on the functional with no integrated understanding of how the order of Nature informs the well-being of people. Hence, towns have been systematically broken down into zones with shopping and commercial zones sitting separately from the housing zones they serve, many of which look exactly the same, being made of the same industrialized materials wherever in the country they are built. And, with business parks and leisure centres built on urban fringes, the entire system only functions because of the car. The opportunities for fragmentation and isolation are everywhere.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. New Urbanism or related principles have their boosters but few would able to compete with the fame of Prince Charles. At the same time, I have never seen Prince Charles officially linked to New Urbanism, which I have mainly viewed as an American movement led by architects.
  2. I do not know if New Urbanists would view themselves this way but it seems like advocating for traditional town design is truly a conservative effort. The pitch goes like this: people over the centuries figured out principles for planning communities at a human scale that worked. With industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of the automobile, we lost sight of the value of this knowledge. If the conservative movement at its best is holding onto to valuable knowledge and traditions from the past, this could be an example through calling people back to older methods.
  3. It could be easy to commodify Nansledan because of its connections to royalty. Think back to the example of Celebration, Florida which was planned with New Urbanist principles: because of its connection to Disney, people were drawn to it. Yet, New Urbanism hopes to return people to a more social, community-oriented life rather than a modern commodified existence.

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Quick Review: “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

Critics of the suburbs are plentiful yet few make their argument in the style of James Howard Kunstler. I use his 2004 TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” often in class because of its clarity and humor. A quick review:

  1. He has a provocative argument: are the American suburbs placing worth dying for? Kunstler explicitly links the design and experience of suburbs to the armed forces fighting in the Middle East: are they willing to die for their suburban communities? This question helps elevate the conversation from one about personal preferences – some Americans like suburbs, some do not – to a larger question of whether our communities are worth fighting for and living in. With the suburban emphasis on single-family homes, it can be hard to orient suburban conversations around the public good.
  2. The primary critique of the suburbs Kunstler offers involves architecture and urban planning. He shows some great examples of American buildings that offer little to pedestrians and the surrounding areas. He shows what a tree-framed streetscape should look like. He discussed a typical American Main Street and how it provides useful public space. He ends up making a pitch for New Urbanism as it recovers a lost understanding of how to create lively public spaces. It is too bad that he does not have a little more time to show how a typical suburb might be transformed (a retrofitted shopping mall is as far as he gets) because of different planning choices.
  3. There is plenty of humor here. While his own books can be somewhat bombastic, he sprinkles in plenty of funny lines in the TED talk including comparing the design of a civic building to a DVD player and discussion of “nature band-aids.”
  4. As someone who teaches courses about suburbs regularly, it is hard to find succinct and effective video clips to use in class. This talk is relatively short, has some humor, and summarizes an important critique of suburban life. Of course, it does not cover everything: Kunstler has little chance to cover some of his own critiques (such as peak oil and driving – although these came along years later, I would be interested to hear him respond to the possible invention of self-driving cars that could further sprawl) and says nothing about racial and class exclusion. Yet, this is my go-to video to discuss what some see as problems in the suburbs.

TED Talks cannot easily cover the nuance of particular social phenomena. However, if they are engaging presentations, they can provide helpful summaries of an issue that can then serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Kunstler’s talk does just that: it is a worthy entree into a decades-long conversation about the downsides and merits of American suburbs.

Plopping a New Urbanist metroburb into the middle of sprawling suburbia

I recently discussed plans for a “metroburb” to replace a sizable AT&T office campus in Hoffman Estates. Reading more about the proposal, I wondered: does it really work to put a New Urbanist development right in the middle of suburbia?

Under Zucker’s plan, which would rename the former campus City Works, the four-level, 1.3 million-square-foot main building would house offices of varying sizes and shops. About 175 townhouses and 375 multifamily rental units would be constructed on the edges of the property. The estimated total cost is about $250 million. Unlike a typical suburban subdivision, the town homes would line straight streets and have alleys…

Zucker, 57, is a devotee of the New Urbanism, the urban planning movement that seeks to replace the car-oriented monotony of suburban sprawl with lively, mixed-use streetscapes that encourage walking and the formation of community.

Chicago suburbs like Arlington Heights have put New Urbanist thinking to use in greenlighting high-rise housing near train stations. That approach is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. Under Zucker’s plan, Hoffman Estates, which doesn’t have its own train station, would do a variation of transit-oriented development.

“Taking the TOD (elements) and putting them inside a building is really the novel part of this,” said Jim Norris, the suburb’s village manager.

While this may be a clever use of what is a large facility, the overall fit between the redevelopment and the surrounding area could be less than ideal. Here is why:

  1. They want to include transit-oriented development elements even though there is no mass transit nearby. Indeed, this office corridor owes much to roads and Interstate. This could represent an opportunity to push for mass transit to the area: rapid buses along major roads? light rail?
  2. It seems like much of the redevelopment is focused on orienting residents, customers, and workers to the original large facility. While this may be a good use of the existing space, how many people from outside of this development will come in? Will this just be a self-contained area?
  3. The new tissue intended to connect the redeveloped area – walkable streets, alleys, interesting places to go – may or may not connect with anything beyond this development. This happens sometimes with suburban New Urbanist developments; they look and feel great on the inside but then have little interaction with the terrain that surrounds them. In other words, it requires requires a car to get to these interesting New Urbanist areas.

In the long run, a redevelopment that has a more permeable edge as well as is situated in a community that truly wants more New Urbanist development overall rather than in just an isolated location could lead to better outcomes.