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:

Photo by Norma Mortenson on Pexels.com

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.

Losing a big tree in a suburban neighborhood

Recently, several big trees were cut down in our suburban neighborhood. These were taller, older trees in a neighborhood full of such trees along the main street and in backyards:

What such trees is perhaps obvious: shade, habitats for birds and other animals, a sense of stability and permanence, connection to nature, a boost to property values. And the problems they could provide also vex suburbanites: leaves, potential for falling down on houses and property, and the potential to become diseased or sick.

But, as we watched the trees cut down, chipped up, and hauled away, I was reminded of another feature of these trees: the ability they have to frame homes and streetscapes. I am reminded of a short passage in James Howard Kuntslter’s TED talk where he describes the purposes of trees in urban planning: to frame the streetscape, to provide shade, and to protect pedestrians from the vehicular traffic. A stereotypical image of American suburbs is the curving two-lane road with a canopy of branches and leaves overhead. But, this also sits aside familiar images of Levittown and other mass subdivisions where all the trees are gone and new saplings can barely fill any space.

Is the big suburban tree a luxury, a status symbol, an aesthetic choice, an intentional choice by a developer? No matter the reason, I hope many of the other large trees around us remain and enhance what would be a bleaker suburban landscape without them.

A new master plan for Chicago builds on (odd) legacies of older plans

With the announcement yesterday that Chicago will embark on a new planning process for the local government to consider, one news report included this tidbit about previous planning processes:

When finished, the document would be submitted to the plan commission and the City Council for approval. Gorski said the last such citywide plan in 1966 had official status but never got formal approval.

And from the official Chicago press release:

“While Chicago may have pioneered citywide planning with the 1909 ‘Plan of Chicago,’ this is a rare opportunity to collectively address current and future issues with a collaborative and coordinated effort with other planning entities, businesses, institutions and the people of Chicago,” DPD Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Dickhut said.

This history would be worth exploring more. Here are a few questions/issues/thoughts which I am sure someone has answered and/or explored:

  1. Why was the 1966 plan not formally approved?
  2. The gap between 1966 and today seems like a long time to not have a different master plan. Chicago has changed a lot since then. Is it safe to assume there have been a lot of smaller (district, community areas, etc.) plans developed and acted upon since 1966?
  3. The reference to the 1909 Burnham Plan is interesting in that it had limited influence on subsequent changes in Chicago or the region. It remains an influential plan yet may not be the best advertisement for a plan that led to lasting change.
  4. While the Burnham Plan is often held up as a visionary example, other Chicago planning visions or decisions may not hold up as well. For example, doing research on Cabrini-Green, I became acquainted with the story of how public housing projects came to be located where they were. Or, think of the placement of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
  5. Even if the new plan is not completed on time or is not approved or enacted, it can be a valuable process to engage numerous stakeholders from around the city to think about and discuss what they want the city to be about.
  6. Balancing the larger vision with the important minutiae to decided at the local scale will be interesting to watch. Either job would be difficult on its own.

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

Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

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.

 

The relatively narrow sidewalks in both cities and suburbs

With fewer cars on the roads, Tom Vanderbilt considers the possible size and role of sidewalks:

Even in a place such as New York City, sidewalks, as the architect John Massengale documented, have been shrunk over the years to make more space for cars. In my own neighborhood, many stretches of sidewalk are the bare minimum of five feet wide. This, per long-standing research, accommodates two pedestrians at once, but begins to fall apart at anything beyond that: two pedestrians encountering one walking in the opposite direction; a kid on a scooter; people stopping to chat. Making matters worse are sidewalk-shrinking obstructions such as trees, light poles, or, most egregious, traffic signs. That same street meanwhile, will dedicate more than 10 feet to an active vehicle-travel lane, as well as two additional lanes of parked vehicles—each larger than the sidewalk itself.

The larger question that Vanderbilt and others address is this: are cities made for cars or people? Is the goal of urban planning to move as many cars as efficiently as possible or to encourage a vibrant streetlife and pedestrian activity?

This also applies to the many residential and suburban areas of the United States. In recent weeks, I have thought about this in my residential neighborhood. There is little room for multiple people. The difference is starker when comparing the sidewalk to the nearby roadway, which easily accommodates two cars passing at 30 mph. And with the size of the residential sidewalk, this forces walkers, runners, and bicyclists either into the grass or, more recently with COVID-19, into the street so that everyone has enough space.

SidewalkResidential

I am guessing various actors would throw up some roadblocks regarding wider sidewalks in residential neighborhoods: they would be more costly to put down, they would take away land from yards, a wider sidewalk is less necessary in normal times (and the rate of sidewalk use does seem up in my locale). But, the way to counter this might be to suggest the sidewalk could expand while the street could shrink. Do we really need such wide residential streets? Would we rather make our neighborhoods more pleasant for cars or people? The American suburbs are tied up with cars and driving but this does not have to always require sacrifice from those who want to walk, run, and bike.

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.

Calculating the costs of commuting versus benefits of living further from work

INRIX recently published data on traffic and congestion in major American cities with Boston leading the way. Here is one of the data tables:

INRIXcongestion2020

When put in these terms, it looks like commuters lose a lot of hours and money by sitting in traffic. In addition to the time it should take to commute by car, drivers in Boston lose over 6 days to congestion and over $2,000 dollars. The cost for the city/region is huge when all the drivers are added together. In New York City, $11 billion lost!

On the other hand, people keep commuting. Why would they do this in light of these costs? The pull of the suburbs and locations away from their work is strong. Perhaps workers should be able to live near their work but a good number choose or are pushed to locations far from their jobs. And they might be willing to put up with these costs because the places where they live offer other good things (and measurable benefits). In American life, suburbs offer single-family homes, places for family life, and more. Losing 100+ hours in traffic each year in the biggest cities could be tolerable if it comes with a bigger, cheaper home in a well-regarded community.

In an ideal world, workplaces and communities that people want to live in and would thrive in would be located near each other. Sometimes they are but often they are not. In a country where Americans and their government have prioritized certain things – driving over mass transit throughout metropolitan regions, for example – even the hassles of commuting make some sense.

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.

Following (or not) the latest fashionable way to revive urban spaces

Blair Kamin dismisses a proposal to create a High Line like park along LaSalle Street in the Loop in part by appealing to history:

In 1979, as America’s downtowns struggled to meet the challenge of suburban shopping malls, the flavor of the month was the transit mall. Make cities more like suburbs, the thinking went, and they’ll be able to compete. So Chicago cut the number of traffic lanes on State Street from six to two— for buses only — and outfitted the ultrawide sidewalks with trees, flowers and bubble-topped bus shelters…

A recently issued study of the central Loop by commercial real estate brokers Cushman & Wakefield floats the idea of inserting a High Line-inspired elevated walkway through the heart of LaSalle Street. But unlike the High Line or Chicago’s 606 trail, which exude authenticity because they’re built on age-old elevated rail lines, the LaSalle Street walkway would be entirely new — more wanna-be cool than the real thing…

The pathway would combat the perception that LaSalle is a stuffy, “old school” street lined by intimidating temples of finance, the study claims. “With thoughtful modification,” it goes on, “LaSalle Street can become the live-work-play nucleus of the Central Loop.”

Kamin summarizes his proposed strategy:

In short, the way to confront the central Loop’s looming vacancies is to build carefully on existing strengths, rather than reach desperately for a hideous quick fix that would destroy one of the city’s great urban spaces.

A few thoughts in response:

1. Kamin cites two previous fashions – transit malls, linear parks – and cautions against following them. But, certainly there are other fashions from the urban era after World War Two that could be mentioned including: large urban renewal projects (often clearing what were said to be “blighted” or slum areas), removing above ground urban highways (see the Big Dig, San Francisco), mixed-income developments (such as on the site of the former Cabrini-Green high rises), transit-oriented development, waterfront parks, and more. Are all of these just fashions? How would one know? Certainly, it would be difficult for every major city to simply copy a successful change from another city and expect it to work in the same way in a new context. But, when is following the urban fashion advisable?

2. How often does urban development occur gradually and in familiar ways versus more immediate changes or disruptions? My sense is that most cities and neighborhoods experience much more of the first where change slowly accumulates over years and even decades. The buildings along LaSalle Street have changed as has the streetscape. But, the second might be easy to spot if a big change occurs or something happens that causes residents and leaders to notice how much might change. Gentrification could be a good example: communities and neighborhoods experience change over time but one of the concerns about gentrification is about the speed at which new kinds of change is occurring and what this means for long-time residents.

3. As places change, it could be interesting to examine how much places at the edge of change benefit from being the first or in the beginning wave. Take the High Line: a unique project that has brought much attention to New York City and the specific neighborhoods in which the park runs. As cities look to copy the idea, does each replication lose some value? Or, is there a tipping point where too many similar parks saturate the market (and perhaps this would influence tourists differently than residents)? I could also see where other cities might benefit from letting other places try things out and then try to correct the issues. If the High Line leads to more upscale development and inequality, later cities pursuing similar projects can address these issues early on.

Freeway revolts had a point: evidence from Chicago regarding the problems with highways

Two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia looked at the effects of building highways and found a number of negative effects for Chicago neighborhoods near the highways :

FreewayRevoltsWorkingPaper

The literature criticizing urban renewal and highway construction in major cities after World War II has made a similar point: the construction of highways broke up established neighborhoods and encouraged urban residents to leave for the suburbs since they could easily access the city via highway.

At the same time, it sounds like this working paper suggests highways themselves are not necessarily the issue. The bigger problem may be that the highway is located on the surface and creating negative local effects including acting as barriers. Sometimes, this may be intentional such as when the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s South Side had the intended side effect of separating black and white neighborhoods. Other times, the highway could bisect what was a connected neighborhood and sever it. But, if the highway was underground, perhaps everyone could win: there would not be a 6-12 lane barrier, local neighborhoods would not see or hear the highway in the same way, and suburbanites could still access the city center. While it is hard to imagine, picture the Eisenhower headed into Chicago underground with parks, surface level streets, social and business activity, and a CTA line above it. Local residents could still have access to the highway without having to live right next to it.

This solution would likely not satisfy everyone. If the goal of countering highways is not just to protect neighborhoods but also to limit driving and promote mass transit, burying the highway is not enough. The eyesore may be gone but the larger problem still looms: Americans like driving and the associated lifestyle and too many cities are subservient to cars rather than to pedestrians and community life.