At the CNU Transportation Summit 2008, two presentations were especially consequential for the study of street networks. Both reported preliminary findings about the public safety implications of street connectivity. The results deserve attention from planners and transportation engineers.

Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall, of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Transportation and Urban Planning, investigated the relationships between connectivity, network configuration, density, severe vehicle crashes, and mode choice. Matt Magnasco of the Charlotte (N.C.) Department of Transportation, studied the effect of connectivity on fire station service area and capital facilities planning.

In the extended entry, summary descriptions of both presentations.

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The winners of the Prix Rotthier pour la Reconstruction de La Ville 2008 have been announced, and they are gems. The Prix Rotthier prizes are given once each three years, and the theme of this year’s competition was “the best urban neighborhood built in Europe in the last 25 years.”

Not only are the winners beautiful and functional, they were judged to have been conceived and designed according to many of the principles of sustainable development and the EU Green Paper for the Urban Environment. These include revitalization of existing cities and suburbs with compact, mixed use development; integrating land use and transportation for more walking, biking, public transit and fewer motor vehicles; harmonious small and medium industry; energy efficiency and green building; waste reduction and recycling; parkland and integrated soil and water management; and not least, to “defend the architectural heritage against the uniform banality of the international style, respecting rather than imitating the old.”

The competition has done a service by providing tearsheets with site plans, photos and statistics on each of the ten winners. However, descriptive material is lacking (until the catalog is published in late 2008), so this post will give capsule descriptions of three neighborhood-scale projects, along with links to more information.

1. Plessis-Robinson, France

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Photo credit: City of Plessis-Robinson

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A story about record train ridership in the UK includes this impressive graphic:

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Image credit: The Independent

The chart is based on the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) booklet The Billion Passenger Railway. The booklet features several articles — including one that forecasts that the competitiveness of 21st century cities will depend on their high speed rail links. Andrew Curry reports from September 2083:

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For old brick houses, it’s as energy-efficient to renovate — and possibly more so — as it is to tear down and build new. That’s the conclusion of a study by the Empty Homes Agency, a UK nonprofit that works to bring empty homes back into use.

Large homebuilders in the UK claim that new construction is many times more energy efficient than older properties like Victorian houses. That’s true for operating energy, counter the environmentalists, but what about “embodied” energy — the energy it takes to manufacture building materials? Until this study, no one had calculated the relative importance of each. After analyzing three renovated and three new houses, the conclusion was this:

Previous studies and much of the accepted thinking on domestic CO2 emissions have suggested that demolishing existing homes and building new homes to replace them will contribute to an overall reduction in CO2 emissions. This study suggests that this is not so, and that refurbishing existing homes and converting empty property into new homes can yield CO2 reductions by preventing emissions from embodied energy that would arise from new build.

In the extended entry, more quotes from the study “New Tricks With Old Bricks.”

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As editor of the Council Report VII: On Green Architecture and Urbanism, I am pleased to announce that the publication has been printed and is now available for order.

councilreportviithumb.jpgGreen building today is well-defined and increasingly popular. However, green urbanism is only starting to coalesce as a defined or systematized approach to the built environment. The Council Report VII features 21 articles on sustainable construction and placemaking by leading practitioners of new urbanist design, planning and education.

As sustainability techniques are adapted from the building scale and applied to the neighborhood and regional scales, a number of critical issues arise. In the rush to go green, we are seeing more instances of misplaced priorities and poorly conceived approaches to scaling up green techniques. That leads to unintended consequences and worsened environmental performance. Therefore, the Council Report VII addresses questions like:

  • What are the best principles and techniques now being developed to coordinate sustainability measures and functional urban design? What are the advanced tools now being developed by urban designers to code and build sustainable urbanism?
  • How are firms redefining themselves to focus on sustainability as a foundation of their practice?
  • What lessons are offered by leading examples of sustainability policies, built projects, and plans? What are effective guidelines for communicating and marketing sustainable communities? What are the definitions of sustainable urbanism, and how do we measure or quantify it?
  • What is research telling us about the sustainability of traditional architectural design and construction techniques, and their performance relative to modernist styles?
  • How are universities incorporating sustainable urbanism, and what programs and initiatives are now underway?
  • What are the philosophical underpinnings of green urbanism and what are the proposed agendas for future research and advocacy?

In the extended entry, a complete table of contents and a summary of each article.

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This wonderful drawing is from the Downtown Precise Plan of Redwood City, California. It show 21 signage types that are commonly encountered in pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use frontages, streets and districts.

The drawings are by Dan Zack, project manager of the city’s community development department. The layout is by Freedman Tung & Bottomley, lead urban design consultant for the Precise Plan.

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In the extended entry, a key to this drawing with short definitions of each sign type from the Downtown Precise Plan.

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The recent study Growing Cooler, coordinated by Smart Growth America and published by the Urban Land Institute, found that “Typically, Americans living in compact urban neighborhoods where cars are not the only transportation option drive a third fewer miles than those in automobile-oriented suburbs…”

On March 10, 2008, the American Public Transit Association released a closely related study that supplemented those findings. APTA’s study, The Broader Connection between Public Transportation, Energy Conservation and Greenhouse Gas Reduction, tackles the same topic from a different direction. It asks, How does the availability of transit affect land use, its energy efficiency, and its greenhouse gas emissions — not only for transit riders but for those who don’t ride transit?

The conclusion: Not only is the land use effect significant, it is major. Below the fold, some excerpts from the study and key findings.

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Image credit: APTA

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Market-rate parking is going forward in the new Washington D.C. ballpark district, and the pilot plan has received a good amount of coverage lately in the local press. JDLand.com has a roundup of links: page one and page two.

Here’s JD’s parking map page, which says: “On all streets shown in the color red, DDOT will install new multi-space meters or modify the times and prices on traditional existing meters. Multi-space meters will be programmed with rates that vary according by day and length of parking stay. These rates will be aimed at encouraging parking turnover and limiting vehicles squatting on commercial spaces.”

Why is this good news for D.C.? I previously discussed market rate parking, its justification and benefits, and a trailblazing implementation in California, in Redwood City’s Free-Market Parking Meters. If D.C.’s pilot plan is implemented as well as Redwood City’s, then the ballpark district should see reduced traffic congestion and pollution, scarce parking allocated in a more convenient and efficient way, more income for streetscape improvements, an improved pedestrian environment and therefore more business for local shops.

And who doesn’t love a solar-powered parking meter? (Okay, that was a rhetorical question.)

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The selection of neighborhood designs in America grows more variegated every year. The models and forms of previous centuries are still with us, like big-city apartment blocks, small-town Main Streets, streetcar suburbs, and Levittown-style suburbs. In many places those neighborhoods continue to be very popular and successful.

In recent years those models have been modified, combined, and hybridized to yield a profusion of new neighborhood types in a variety of settings. They include gated McMansion enclaves, suburban high-rise superblocks, exurban townhouse pods, live-in shopping malls, new town centers, live/work/play downtown redevelopment, and so on.

Too often there isn’t enough consideration given to the long term in some of these developments. They are designed to sell well today, but it’s less clear whether they’ll be successful for generation after generation of residents — whether they’ll perform well in terms of quality of life, finances and sustainability, and adapt gracefully to changes in the larger economy, culture and environment.

This is where tools for evaluating the design and performance of neighborhoods can be useful. A variety of rating systems are available, such as checklists, scoresheets and performance measurements. A range of groups and constituencies are interested in these tools, including planners, developers, policymakers, researchers, investors, activists, and home buyers. Each of these groups has compelling yet somewhat different reasons to rate neighborhoods. The reasons for rating can be grouped into six broadly overlapping categories: communication, recognition, planning, marketing, research and investing.

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In October 2006, the U.S. Census population clock reached the 300-million-person mark. After some notoriety in the media, the clock proceeded to do what it does best: move forward. Our nation has a long history of population growth and an equally long history of building new places to meet the demands of this growth. While American frontiersmen may have settled the land quickly during the expansion years, they did not necessarily plan their towns in haste.

A survey of towns from across the country reveals that many beloved and important places were created using a few dozen distinctive formal town patterns. These patterns were repeated again and again to provide a familiar setting for waves of migrating Americans who were looking for a place to call home. Repeating town patterns helped surveyors and state general assemblies quickly establish county seats and bring law and order to new territories. At the same time, many land speculators used the same regional patterns to market their new towns as important cities of tomorrow. These patterns were efficient tools for planning and development. They were easy to plat and sell, adaptable to topographical challenges, and flexible enough to provide for future town expansion or accommodate changes in new building types or uses. These same patterns are still available for use.

Today, when new towns are planned, it is common for those involved to collect examples of local architectural styles, buildings, foliage, and streets. These items serve to guide and inspire the place-making process. An inventory of formal town patterns can serve the same purpose. This paper demonstrates how a collection of town patterns may be incorporated into the planning and design process.

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On November 26, 2007, professors Erle C. Ellis and Navin Ramankutty published a conceptual model and map that revolutionize the story of global ecosystems. The conventional view, which can be found in millions of atlases and introductory textbooks, is an aggregation of ecosystems called biomes. Biomes are classified by vegetation, climate and location, and have exotic, suggestive names like “Tropical Mountain Systems,” “Temperate Oceanic Forest” or “Boreal Tundra Woodland.”

Biomes also suffer from a notable deficiency: The humans are missing. In certain important respects, the conventional biome map is a fantasy, an image of the earth minus the influence of people and their land uses.

And have we ever had an influence! As Ellis and Ramankutty note, humans have been redesigning, re-engineering and remaking the land such that “the vegetation forms predicted by conventional biome systems are now rarely observed across large areas of Earth’s land surface.” Today, in the year 2007, “more than three quarters of Earth’s land surface has been reshaped by human activity.”

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“The Interoperation” is a short story by Bruce Sterling, award-winning science fiction author and futurist. Sterling has always been one of the most canny and entertaining prognosticators of architectural futures, and this latest work does not disappoint. “The Interoperation” deftly and fondly sends up starchitecture, obsolescence, digitization, networking and the vagaries of fame. It explores the design process more deeply than his previous fiction. Like most works by Sterling, the story is shambling, episodic and lacking in coherent structure.

While Sterling has in the past been skeptical of Peak Oil and Kunstler’s Long Emergency thesis in particular, note that “The Interoperation” is set firmly in an imagined post-Peak Oil era. Travel is mostly by bike and train; cross country trips are rare; recycling is a pillar of the economy; and sustainability saturates business practices thoroughly.

A few excerpts are below the fold.

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Today the government of Queensland, Australia, released its taskforce report titled Queensland’s Vulnerability to Rising Oil Prices. The report found that Peak Oil is real, and that preparations are essential:

The Taskforce considered the question of whether and when world production of oil will peak. The range of creditable predictions for a world peak oil situation run from 2005 to 2040, with the mean and standard deviations of all academic and industry predictions being 2013, ± 7. The Taskforce concludes that the overwhelming evidence is that world oil production will peak within the next 10 years.

The report recommends risk mitigation approaches such as reduction in consumption of liquid fossil fuels; alternative fuels, technologies and strategies; and preparation for demographic and regional changes, as travel, work and living habits change in response to rising fuel prices. In regards to the latter, the report recommends new urbanism specifically.

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Kelvin Grove Urban Village, a brownfield redevelopment under construction near Brisbane, Queensland. Photo: Queensland Department of Housing

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This is part 7 of a series. See also IntroductionHistorical BackgroundLatter Half of the 20th CenturyNeighborhood WalkingNeighborhood CrimeVehicle Miles and Traffic

High-connectivity thoroughfare patterns are the foundation of walkable neighborhoods and districts. While that fact was self-evident for most of human history, it was lost or ignored by land development and transportation professionals in the post-WWII era. Today, even as the numerous benefits of high connectivity are becoming increasingly recognized, the auto-centric standards of yesteryear remain firmly dominant, particularly in the field of traffic engineering.

Traffic engineering standards discourage small blocks and frequent intersections because of safety concerns. Many jurisdictions have codified those standards into their planning regulations for suburban construction, with the result that most new development consists of isolated pods depending from highway-size arterials. It is a profoundly auto-oriented pattern that is hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists. It creates the typical suburban landscape of separated, isolated pockets instead of the continuous fabric of streets and blocks that is characteristic of efficient, walkable towns and cities.

Are the safety objections against high connectivity grounded in reality? Several investigations suggest that the position promulgated by mainstream traffic engineering standards can be legitimately questioned. Because this is a new and somewhat revolutionary avenue of thought, formal statistical support is just beginning to be compiled. The initial round of studies has found that livable, walkable neighborhoods with well-connected streets are no less safe, and in some respects are safer, than the standard suburban template.

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Conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. is too spread out for workable mass transportation except in a few high-density cities. Urban planning expert Anthony Downs offers this explanation:

But in 2000, at least two thirds of all residents of U.S. urbanized areas lived in settlements with densities of under 4,000 persons per square mile. Those densities are too low for public transit to be effective. Hence their residents are compelled to rely on private vehicles for almost all of their travel, including trips during peak hours.

Traffic: Why It’s Getting Worse, What Government Can Do

Is that accurate? It all depends on statistics and assumptions, both of which are endlessly susceptible to manipulation. For instance, Downs uses “settlements” as the geographic unit of analysis and calculates how many Americans live below a certain density threshold.

That’s one approach, but there are many different approaches. We could use other geographic units and find out the average density in each of them.

Geographic Unit Population Population
% of U.S.
Land Area
(sq mi)
Land Area
% of U.S.
United States 281,421,906 100 3,537,438 100
Metropolitan Areas 225,981,679 80.3 705,790 20
Urbanized Area 192,323,824 68.3 72,022 2

Source: U.S. Census 2000

Looking at the entire United States, what impresses is the vastness and diversity of the land. It’s the America of spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties; of trackless tundra, sizzling deserts and rocky badlands.

But look at the urbanized area of the nation and a different picture emerges. Sixty-eight percent of Americans live on just 2 percent of the U.S. land area. Seen in this light, the large majority of the U.S. population is remarkably concentrated on the land. What implication does this have for population density?

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