People have been confused about neighborhood centers and edges for decades, and that confusion leads to bad decisions. "Neighborhood center" and especially "town center" are broadly used to mean commercial centers. At the beginning, when a hamlet composed of a single neighborhood in the landscape is built (like the one shown on the left), the commercial center that springs up at the crossroads around which the hamlet is constructed is the center of the neighborhood of which the hamlet is composed.
But when the hamlet grows into a village (like the one shown on the right), it reorganizes itself into multiple neighborhoods that are bounded by the main streets leading to the village center. From that point forward, as the village grows to a town and then to a city, each neighborhood has civic spaces and uses (like parks, religious buildings, and the like) at their centers and commercial uses at their corners. Confusing neighborhood centers with neighborhood corners sets a series of errors in motion:
The Single Circle Fallacy
The core error is our simplistic view of the 1/4 mile radius that most people choose to walk instead of drive. Actually, the 1/4 mile radius itself is a fallacy, as we discussed in Walk Appeal… but that's another story. Whether the walking radius is fixed at 1/4 mile or a variable, I propose two overlapping layers of circles, which combine to weave the city together. The first layer is the neighborhood, which is bounded by the busiest thoroughfares, not centered on them. If you doubt that, talk to any mother of a small child. The child is inevitably forbidden to cross the busy thoroughfares, but is given free rein over larger areas of the neighborhood within as they grow. To ignore this fact is to miss something that is fundamentally understood by hundreds of millions of non-planners.
So what's the other layer? The second layer of 1/4 mile radii offsets 1/2 neighborhood in each direction to center on the retail at the intersections of the busiest thoroughfares. In other words, each quarter of a neighborhood probably shops at different corners of the neighborhood. In doing so, they meet people from quarters of neighboring neighborhoods. Those people, in turn, know others from their neighborhood centers, who know others from their retail intersections... weaving a web of relationships clear across the city.
The Ghetto Mistake
The "commercial center as neighborhood center" mistake is actually the prescription for a ghetto. There, a neighborhood is self-contained with little reason to enter or leave. The history of ghettos is spotty at best, of course. I maintain that the two-layer model is actually much more similar to the way that most traditional American towns once worked, and should be the strongly preferred model for a legion of reasons.
The Transect of Risk
Does this mean that the arterial can be left uncivilized? Not at all. I agree that context-sensitive arterials are the preferred model. But even if thoroughly civilized, let's face the fact that the risk to a pedestrian on an arterial will always be somewhat more than their risk on an alley or lane. Is it not possible to see the city as an ocean of waves of risk, undulating between higher risk and lower risk? Must we force everything to the same level of risk? Isn't that exceptionally boring? What I'm really talking about here is a transect of risk, which ought to be a natural part of life. Let's just make sure that the waves peak at an acceptable level.
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This started out as just another shameful story of a Department of Transportation ramming their over-engineered highway through a neighborhood, but the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association just might be turning the tables on them in South Beach. Alton Road, on the West side of Miami Beach, is the battleground.
The Florida DOT decided to "improve" Alton Road, already the least walking- and bike-friendly thoroughfare on South Beach so that it can carry even more cars, and that they could travel faster. The design speed will be 40 miles/hour, but two of the lanes are wider than Interstate lanes, so you know how people will drive. And at 40 miles per hour, your changes of surviving if you're walking and get hit by a car are about 10%. The design speed of 30 miles per hour that the neighborhood is asking for reduces your chance of getting killed to about 50%. Which would you prefer?
The DOT is removing about 40% of the on-street parking. Problem is, on-street parking is what makes sidewalk cafes possible because you'd be insane to sit right next to speeding traffic without parked cars to protect you. And every car parked on the street is worth roughly $250,000 in sales each year to the merchants on that street. Force parking off the street, and bad things happen. If it's behind the building, it's a big heat island and you have to provide not only the parking spaces, but also the aisles in between, so it takes nearly twice as much asphalt. Move it to the side of the building and things get worse because now you have gaps in the urbanism, which is ugly and boring. Move it to the front of the building for the worst possible condition because a sidewalk running between a speedy thoroughfare completely kills Walk Appeal, meaning that almost nobody will walk there.
This isn't just theory… we now know both the measurable things and the ones that can't be measured which encourage or discourage walking. And walkability is the biggest single predictor of the chance of success and risk of failure of neighborhood businesses.
Walk Appeal is an even bigger problem than normal on Alton Road because almost half of South Beach residents don't own a car. They don't need them because South Beach is so walkable. So if you make Alton Road unfriendly to walkers and cyclists, you're cutting out almost half of the customers to Alton Road's businesses. For most businesses, losing almost half of your customers is the equivalent of a death warrant.
The Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association, and the Alton Road Reconstruction Coalition it spawned have been fighting the DOT's auto-dominant design every step of the way, and not just as NIMBYs. Some really serious New Urbanist planners live on South Beach. Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the New Urbanism, have a condo there as well. The New Urbanists have therefore put out many excellent design counter-proposals along the way. The designers include Matt Lambert, Jason King, and Pam Stacy, all partners or employees at two of the most famous planning firms in the world: DPZ and Dover-Kohl. My wife Wanda is one of the core group of neighbors leading the charge, which also includes the designers plus Aaron Sugarman, Ben Batchelder, Ken Bereski, Mark Needle, Ron Starkman, and Tammy Tibbles, under the leadership of longtime neighborhood activist Denis Russ. Others have weighed in as well, such as nationally-known cycling expert Mike Lydon and blogger Kaid Benfield on Atlantic Cities, saying "this is what a Complete Streets campaign should look like."
But even with all of the excellent counter-proposals, the DOT did what the DOT always does: they rammed their design down the throats of the neighborhood, and in a particularly nefarious way that was downright dishonest: The DOT showed several options, and after literally years of negotiation with Flamingo Park, both sides (plus the city of Miami Beach) agreed on what is known as the "locally-approved option." But when they signed the contract to begin construction a couple months ago, it was with a design that nobody had even seen. And that design was worse than any of the options that they had shown. That's downright fraudulent and disgraceful.
So it seemed that all was lost. But Tammy just wouldn't let it go. She did a lot of research, and then put together a very effective case that the Bait-And-Switch the DOT pulled simply isn't right, and finally got the City Commission's ear. The stakes weren't as big as all of East Village, but this story is bracingly similar to Jane Jacobs' legendary fight against Robert Moses in the 1960s.
Now, the design of Alton Road is back in play. Part of the job is reworking the storm drainage, so it will be 2015 before the street-level work is done. The Miami Beach City Commission is holding hearings, and appears firmly on the side of the Coalition, with one commissioner noting that "the Commission should prepare for litigation if necessary."
So join the fight! This campaign just might set the pattern for other victories over tyrannical DOT's elsewhere. America was founded to put down tyranny, but DOTs across America act with complete impunity. The time has come for this to end. They can build highways in the country if they like because that's where highways belong, but when a state route enters town, it needs to behave in civilized fashion. For far too long, we've paid a price now totaling over a trillion dollars by letting highways ruin our cities and towns by being too big and fast. When they come into town, they should act like boulevards, avenues, and main streets, not country highways.
We need your help… please join us! Please sign the petition. Facebook it. Tweet it. Here's the Facebook page… please like it. Please follow their new Twitter stream. Please blog about it. Please tweet the blog posts. Matter of fact, I've started an Alton Road BlogOff, so let me know when you blog and I'll put it there. Right now is the crucial time, so please act!
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Schooner Bay is a new DPZ-designed town in the Bahamas where you can look out onto the fields and onto the waters from which much of your food comes. It is a real fishing village, with a boat that goes out in the morning to catch the evening meals at the Black Fly Lodge. As the town grows, there will be more fishing boats. You enter town skirting the edge of Lightbourn Farm, which produces organic fare that feeds more than the town's inhabitants. Delivering food from the surrounding land and waters assures that Schooner Bay will remain a nourishable place. And these are two of the many things that Schooner Bay is doing to become the most complete Original Green place built in our time.
I was at Schooner Bay recently with my friends and colleagues Eric Moser and Julie Sanford, and we ate at Black Fly on Friday night. If you choose to eat indoors, the kitchen and the dining room are completely open to each other, so it's like eating at the "chef's table" inside the kitchen of a fine restaurant. But this was the Bahamas in late spring, so we ate out on the verandah instead. Black Fly caters to fishermen looking for the blazing-fast bonefish that populate nearby waters. That night, there was one fisherman at the lodge with no other plans, so we invited him to have dinner with us, along with Clint Kemp, Black Fly's general manager. The meal was nothing short of exquisite; the best I've experienced in a very long time. The fish had been caught just a few hours before, and the rest of the meal (except the wine) came from the organic farm. And chef Devon Roker's culinary craftsmanship is of the highest order.
The farm is a fascinating place, with about half of it devoted to a type of vertical farming I hadn't seen before. Row after row of poles are strung like a string of beads with lightweight pots, and then topped with irrigation hoses. The space between the rows is covered with landscape fabric to eliminate weed growth. This biointensive trick allows Lightbourn to raise far more produce than would be possible if it all grew on the ground. It's a hybrid hydroponic system, with water and nutrients delivered through the hoses to drip down through each pot, but the pots contain soil, not just water. So it's the best of both worlds, in my opinion: preserving the complexity of interactions (many of which we don't yet fully understand) that occur with roots in soil while retaining the effectiveness of hydroponics.
Until recently, Lightbourn Farm grew only vegetables. They are now beginning to branch out, as you can see from the free-range chicken I found exploring one of the Lightbourn buildings.
There are many more great stories to tell about Schooner Bay, and I'll be posting some of them over the next days and weeks. But for starters, check out The Schooner Bay Miracle, which chronicles the shocking lack of damage after the eye of Hurricane Irene hit Schooner Bay at her strongest point, with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. Also, have a look at The Ecological Dividend, which lays out the millions of dollars of benefits that are accruing by building this town in an Original Green way. Be sure to check out Mainsheet as well… it's Schooner Bay's excellent quarterly publication that's mainly cultural reporting and articles on ideals of community-building. And then, do yourself a favor and make a reservation for one of the cottages… you really need to see this place.
Chuck Marohn keynoted the closing plenary of CNU21 in Salt Lake City. The following are his comments:
• Industrial park infrastructure is almost always a horrible investment because of subsidies of industries.
• It is beyond our ability to fathom the magnitude of our public debt.
• We have transformed ourselves from an economy based on savings and work to an economy based on debt accumulation.
• The mechanisms of growth we have become accustomed to are waning.
• Local governments are going to be forced to absorb the local costs of the current development pattern.
• The current pattern of development cannot be maintained without large tax increases and/or large cuts in services.
• The suburban pattern has built-in and fundamental insolvency.
• The old cities were financially resilient. If not, they would have gone away.
• Pre-sprawl development is the culmination of thousands of years of experience in development of the human environment.
• Pre-sprawl, everyone knew how to build great places. If you doubt this, look at old pictures of ordinary towns. The best we build today is scarcely as good as what everyone built everywhere before sprawl. My own hometown was fabulous by today's standards, but we largely demolished it.
• Every city today has miles and miles of streets with negative return on investment.
• We need to relentlessly prove New Urbanism as a high return public investment.
• We're missing the bazooka in our argument: the ROI of New Urbanism versus sprawl.
• The tax base of the worst historic traditional development pattern overvalues the best of the shiny and new solely because of the pattern of development. We illustrated this by looking at the ROI of a ratty section of traditional commercial versus new sprawl development just down the street.
• The auto-oriented pattern is very fragile, with limited upside and huge downside. Traditional development patterns are opposite. That's why the traditional patterns of development could be sustained so long, and why sprawl might very well bankrupt us.
• If our cities are going broke, doesn't it make sense to use the traditional pattern that, even at its worst, out-performs the best of sprawl?
• We need to champion an incremental approach to development.
• "Build it and they will come" is a brilliant plot for a movie, but it is a horrible development strategy.
• Our ancestors always built incrementally; it's only recently that we've started trying to build the end from the beginning.
• When an incremental project fails, the entire place doesn't collapse because the project is only a small part of the entire place, and therefore easy to fix.
• The way we got wealthy as a country was by building incrementally over time.
• I don't care if you like to play dice or cards, but it's still gambling to "build it and they will come."
• We need to put an end to top-down planning.
• Innovation from the top down is orderly and dumb. innovation from the bottom up is chaotic but smart.
• Replacing dumb with smart means replacing orderly with chaotic.
• As New Urbanists, we have to resist the trend to become more top-down.
• Memphis has done everything the professionals told them to do, but their wealth and prosperity has remained elusive.
• Orderly but dumb gets you downtown Memphis.
• A lot of chaotic but smart projects will fail, or be messy, but we must embrace it because overall, it's what works.
• It's not about well-informed or not. It's systemic. The "orderly but dumb" guys are the ones who are educated.
• Many minds thinking, even if uneducated in planning, will inevitably get better results than a few administrators. It's the Internet versus a mainframe. Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica.
Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block
I had the pleasure of doing this session with Susan Finlayson of Wasatch Community Gardens and Sharon Leopardi of BUG Farms, both of Salt Lake City. Here's my tweet-cast of their comments, followed by a few comments on my presentation:
• Susan: A community garden is a place, an activity, and an idea.
• Susan: A community garden is 10% garden and 90% community.
• Susan: At the heart of every community garden is an engaged community.
• Susan: To engage the garden's community you need a community organizer.
• Susan: We have workshops through the year on gardening and cooking.
• Sharon: I never grew food or even liked vegetables growing up.
• Sharon: I came to realize that the food industry is one of our biggest problems, and that gardening is a great way to help.
• Sharon: SPIT farming: Small Plot Intensive Farming
• Sharon: One of the most interesting things is knocking on people's doors and saying "hey, can I use your yard for a garden?"
• Sharon: My starting capital was $5,000 from my parents.
• Sharon: When I started, I didn't have a single day off from May to October.
• Sharon: My first year I had 1/8 acre. My second year we upped it to 3/4 acre and I hired 3 people to help me.
• Sharon: Growing vegetables is great but it's hard to make money. I'm looking at expanding into prepared foods as well.
• Sharon: Most of our planting is direct-seeded; all of our planting is in raised beds with closely-spaced plants.
My part in the presentation asked the question: is it possible to .
CNU Open Source
Mike Lydon: Tactical Urbanism: 4 people with shopping carts cross street w/signs: 1-problem 2-what if? 3-rendering 4-if you like, honk
Chuck Marohn: Topic - How to stop soothing the conscience of the privileged and start learning from the public
Chuck: infrastructure projects create lots of support because of jobs, local consultants, etc.
Chuck: the public learns of infrastructure projects at the end of the process. we should start with the public
Chuck: if infrastructure project options are ever shown to the public, they are usually Dumb, Dumber, and Dumbest
Michael Mehaffy: Topic - Urban Acupuncture
Michael: great cities are always undergoing transformations that are making them better
Michael: the ability for cities to continually adapt makes them resilient
Michael: great cities are always undergoing transformations that heal and improve them
Michael: top-down and bottom-up in place-making should not be either/or. we need systems capable of being both
Michael: "We need a web way of thinking" - Jane Jacobs
Paul Crabtree: current Saudi water systems run long distances. our proposed system for city expansion is neighborhood-based treatment
Paul: our streets harvest all the rainwater that falls in the community into a French drain in the median
Paul: the French drain was co-located in the trench already being dug for the wastewater line
Paul: our system reduced existing runoff by 75%, while typical practices double or triple undeveloped land runoff
Howard Blackson: Topic - The Decision District
Howard: Decision Districts are one lot deep along two sides of a street
Howard: how do you do standards for an entire cities that allow for the setup of Decision Districts?
Bruce Donnelly: Topic - Urban Tissue and Subsidiarity
Bruce: the idea of subsidiarity came originally from Catholicism
Bruce: Urban tissue formation: 1-connection centers, 2-develop back land, 3-connect backs to make blocks
Bruce: Whose responsibility is it to connect the backs?
Bruce: front street is mainly a public responsibility
Bruce: it is a spiritual responsibility to connect the backs, weaving our cities together
Bruce: Step 4 of urban tissue formation is breaking through the grid as needed
Mark Nickita: the primary city works best if it is well-tied to the metro area
Mark: I'm from the Rust Belt, which is horribly positioned branding-wise with the Sun Belt
Mark: we're re-branding the Rust Belt as the Lake Belt
Mark: water is a significant part of all Lake Belt activities
Mark: you've gotta identify what you have before you can brand and leverage what you have
Mark: the Lake Belt is a network of 50 million people
Mark: old corridors that have been abandoned to rot can be reborn as something new and interesting
Mark: embrace your four seasons. if winters are cold, celebrate with winter festivals
Mark: they're not remaking Buffalo as it was before; they're remaking it as a new place