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.

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)

Solving traffic problems by developing resilient roads

A new study suggests cities and regions should think about their whole network of roads as resilient rather than focusing on main arteries:

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Maksim Kitsak, associate research scientist in the Department of Physics and Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, and his colleagues examine the resilience and efficiency in city transportation systems. Efficiency refers to the average time delay a commuter would face annually due to traffic. Resilience is the ability of road networks to absorb adverse events that fall outside normal daily traffic patterns…

“What we show is actually these two measures are not really correlated with each other,” Kitsak said. “One would think that if the city is bad for traffic under normal conditions, it would be equally bad or worse for traffic under additional stress events, like severe weather. But we show that is not quite the case.”

For example, the study found that the Los Angeles transportation network—while inefficient on a daily basis—doesn’t suffer much from adverse events. The road systems are resilient. They function more or less the same regardless of unforeseen incidents…

Why is the City of Angels more resilient than the City by the Bay? Kitsak said there are many factors that influence transportation resiliency, but one of the most important ones is the availability of backup roads. Los Angeles has many, while San Francisco does not. San Francisco also relies heavily on bridges, which separate the city from other parts of the Bay Area where many commuters live.

This is more evidence that simply adding lanes to major highways or even constructing more major roads is not necessarily the way to go to solve traffic and congestion issues. All the roads (plus other transportation options) work together in a system or network.

Speaking of Los Angeles, this reminds me that the region can illustrate both the good and bad of having a more resilient road network. On the good side, concern about potential Carmageddon and Carmageddon 2 were overblown as the closing of a major highway for repairs was not as disruptive as some thought. On the flip side, a few years ago some Los Angeles residents complained about Waze rerouting cars through their quiet neighborhood to avoid backups on the main roads.

Finally, this study could also be related to claims by New Urbanists that the best option for laying out roads and space is on a grid system. Grids allow drivers and other easy ways to get around problem spots. In contrast, subdivisions (common in suburban areas) that include quiet and occasionally winding residential roads that dump onto clogged main arteries do not contain many alternatives should something go wrong on the main roads.

So is the trick in the long run to create a resilient road network within a region that is not totally dependent on cars? Los Angeles might come up looking good in this study but not everyone would agree that sprawl and lots and driving is desirable.

The potential problems with a city “built from the Internet up”

Sidewalk Labs, a part of Alphabet/Google, wants to develop 12 acres on Toronto’s waterfront and they have a unique vision:

Sidewalk describes its vision for Quayside in terms worthy of Blade Runner, as a city “built from the internet up … merging the physical and digital realms.” In reality, the company’s ambition lies first in the synthesis of established techniques like modular construction, timber-frame building, underground garbage disposal, and deep-water cooling. Not low-tech, but not rocket science either. Sidewalk’s success will depend on deploying those concepts at scale, beginning with a preliminary tract at Quayside but expanding—if all goes well—to Toronto’s Port Lands, a vast, underused peninsula of reclaimed land the size of downtown Toronto.

Sure, there will robots delivering packages, sensors for air quality and noise, and the deployment of a range of electronics that will help the infrastructure enable autonomous vehicles. But, says Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Indeed, a number of Sidewalk’s ideas are rather old-school: retractable, durable canopies to shelter sidewalks (hello, 11th-century Damascus); pedestrian pathways that melt snow (familiar from any ski town); composting, which is as old as human settlement itself. The company projects that managing wind, sun, and rain can “double the number of [year-round] daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside.” The development, Doctoroff said, “is primarily a real estate play.”…

That’s part of the pitch for Sidewalk’s Toronto neighborhood. The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding metro area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings, do not draw on technology at all.

Many have tried to master-plan the vibrancy of an organic city; most have failed. You better believe a company named after Jane Jacobs has the lingo down: “The most exciting ways to activate the public realm are often a mix of traditional uses in flexible spaces,” the company’s proposal says. “The cafe that puts tables on the sidewalk, the teacher who uses a park for nature lessons, the artist who turns a street corner into a stage.” But is it really the case that that kind of street life can be built, as Sidewalk promises, on “a robust system of asset monitoring” that creates a reservation system for sidewalk space? No.

It sounds like this development could be an interesting mix of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Google. Or, it could be another splashy redevelopment project that Google eventually sells at a sizable profit.

In the long run, developing 12 acres or a sizable corporate campus – recently undertaken by Apple or Facebook – is very different than creating a city. There are numerous differences including these:

  1. Building and maintaining essential infrastructure including water, power, gas, and telecommunications. A smaller development has the advantage of plugging into existing systems.
  2. American communities tend to be built in pieces rather than all at once. There is the issue whether people can build a development or city in a certain way and just expect community to happen – there is enough evidence from New Urbanist projects that it does not exactly work this way. One way around this is to build in stages and give the community time to develop, grow, and have its own history and identity.
  3. A development project often is working within existing political structures. Google can’t do whatever it wants in Toronto; it has to answer to local government. This could be quite a hindrance and could lead some tech companies to practice their city-building in environments where they have more local control.
  4. A city run by a private company versus one operating in a democratic system could be very different. Graber hints at this at the end of the piece: what happens if residents do not like Google’s ideas? The company town idea has issues. At the same time, a private firm could develop the property or community and then hand it over to local residents and government – this happens everywhere from developers and HOAs to Disney building Celebration.

All that said, it could be worthwhile to let some private firms do large-scale development like this to see if they can offer new features or solve common problems facing municipalities.

Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

The Chicago of today influenced by 1920s zoning decisions

A new study suggests the beginning of zoning in Chicago had long-lasting effects:

Walsh and two other urban economists investigated zoning’s long-term effects in Chicago, using 1920s parcel-level data on land use and market values prior to, and immediately after, the adoption of the city’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1923. They compared these early quilts of land use to that of the present day (or, at least, to the most recent complete dataset available, which came from 2005).

Contrary to what many economists may believe, they first found that zoning did not merely ratify existing land uses. Lot by lot, they found significant variation between the activities that predated zoning and those that came after, especially as years went by. For example, some factories and shopping areas that didn’t conform to the 1923 code were allowed to stay in their respective locations, thanks to a “grandfather” clause. But over time, the vast majority of them disappeared. The powerful force of zoning can be seen on a citywide scale, too: Whereas 82 percent of Chicago’s developed blocks had some form of commerce happening in 1922, that share had dropped by about half by 2005, researchers found.

In other words, the way Chicago looks in the 21st century tracks much more closely with the desires of its planners in 1923 than it does with the city that preceded zoning. This fact has had a huge effect on economic patterns, too. For example, the researchers found that exclusive residential zoning had a significant impact on home prices, driving up values in neighborhoods cordoned off for single-family homes. On a citywide level, they used a regression analysis to find that the zoning code of 1923 had bigger role in shaping economic patterns—i.e., where commercial and industrial activity is going on today—than either pre-existing transportation networks or geography, two factors you might think would best explain why there’s a factory by the old railroad tracks, or a shopping district near downtown…

Although the present paper didn’t explicitly analyze how Chicago’s old zoning codes have influenced racial segregation, a companion paper published in Julyby the same researchers found that the laws drawn up in 1923 were discriminatory: Areas with more black residents were zoned for higher-density housing, and “neighborhoods with larger populations of blacks or recent immigrants were zoned disproportionately for manufacturing.” Chicago consistently ranks as among the most segregated cities in the U.S., and its present-day economic divisions track closely with race (as well as with municipally recognized community boundaries). It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that zoning laws (much like housing policy) dating back a century are in some ways responsible. That’s a theory that needs investigation, Walsh says.

Zoning decisions are political ones. The suggestion here is that if the decisions are good ones, they can have positive effects for decades. The converse – particularly when used to limit options for particular groups – is also true.

The last paragraph of the article hints at recent suggestions regarding significant changes to urban zoning. It would be interesting to see what average Americans think of such ideas: would they trade predictability for flexibility? Continue with the example of Chicago: would more flexible zoning allow for the construction of more affordable housing or would it mean that more land would be converted to non-residential uses, limiting housing options? New Urbanists have touted mixed-use zoning for a long time but their vision of this is often limited to particular kinds of businesses or offices as well as nicer housing (even if it includes different price ranges).