Incremental Approach to Urbanism: Implementation

RepavingAn incremental approach to urbanism is focused on improving conditions. The incremental approach is focused on the small scale, low risk, investment. This approach is not about large budget investment. Incremental approaches are about thoughtful management can be accomplished through a bottom up grass roots approach, or from a top down approach.

I recently posted an Incremental Approach to Urbanism, where I began to define Incremental Urbanism. To expand and further explain the Incremental Approach, I wan to share how the incremental approach is being used in practice.

The two best examples of the bottom up grass roots approach can be found through the Better Block Project and Tactical Urbanism. These are both groups and philosophies that support residents to improve their community from the bottom up. I would encourage you to check out both of these groups and review the case studies and projects.

The grass roots approach is well documented, and the technical tacticians of these projects do an excellent job of sharing how they completed these projects. The less documented approach is the top down approach. The top down approach is harder to put your finger on, because in many places, government is the problem. However, there are places where government is undergoing dramatic change.

The top down approach in an incremental approach were local government is permission giving. I take the term “permission giving” from the work of Bill Easum and his book, Unfreezing Moves. Easum describes permission giving through the context of the congregation of a church. I assure you that the social complexity of a church is concentrated version of the social actions of a city, which make this a great comparison.

To paraphrase and virtually lift the words of Easum, a permission giving organization, is an empowering community where persons are encouraged to discover and live out their God-given gifts, in order to enhance the agreed-upon community vision without having to ask for permission for a central authority as long as they can find two or three people who want to help and what they do does not violate the DNA of the community. Permission giving communities are the places where new ideas are nurtured and supported.

The top down approach are the places where you use policies, procedures, and staff, to assist in incremental development. These are the places where local government have a clear mission that directs staff to continually improve place in every capital project. These are also the places that allow developers or residents to complete small scale demonstration projects through a permit type process. The local government allow for low risk projects to occur.

There are many places that have a top down, permission giving policies in place. You may not see these policies implemented at the speed of a grassroots movement. Remember, unlike the private sector, local government has no value of time. This is why you need to maximize the top down approach for the the projects with the bigger obstacles.

An incremental approach to urbanism requires both the bottom up and top down approach.

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Yellow Vest for Safety

imageThis week we learned that our community will be providing all of the local school children with yellow safety vests. This is part of a duel program combining the First Lady’s Lets Move Campaign with Safe Routes to School. Both programs have recently suffered budget constraints, and lack of participation.

Our local officials felt providing yellow safety vests to the local school children would provide them the greatest opportunity to play. Sidewalks and other amenities cost too much and too took long to build in the community. Local budget cuts required the local government to close the city parks last year, and the mayor saw an opportunity. During the meeting, Mayor Knowledge explained, “Our city’s best asset is our streets, and with these safety vest they are now open for our city’s children enjoyment!”

Several school board members explained how this new joint venture with the city will assist the school to meet the new national fitness standards as outlined in the First Lady’s national agenda. School Principle Skinner explained, “Our children will no longer be chained to yellow school buses, as long as they wear their yellow vests.” It is also projected that the extra walking and dodging traffic will increase the appetite of children once afraid of the local lunch program.

The city council explained that all of the vests will be delivered house to house by volunteers from the American Automobile Driving Association (AADA). Representatives from AADA released a lengthy statement describing their support for this program. They described how the yellow vests would make it easier for drivers to see when a pedestrian runs into their car, and would eliminate many of the traffic problems due to bussing. They also noted that this program should also lower premiums for local drivers.

If your city has proposed something as silly and stupid as this, then it just may be April Fools Day!

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Incremental Approach to Urbanism

Incremental Urbanism does not have a clear definition among planners. We all seem to know what Incremental Urbanism is when we see it, but have a hard time developing a definition that captures the practice of Incremental Urbanism.

I reached out to my personal assist, Google, and various pages came up with a lot of pages outlining what people “did”, and very little on the “how” to plan and develop Incremental Urbanism. There are two problems with the lack of documentation. All of which lead to a additional mis understandings of this important concept.

An incremental approach to urbanism supports the long term vision, while encouraging feasible development of today. This is a natural growth, redevelopment and investment over time. For example, the first buildings on a main street  may only be one story, paid for with cash, single use, and built of a more temporary materials. These buildings are utilitarian. These buildings are still built to the street or corner, and support walkability. These buildings are focused on creating a market that supports the next level of investment. These are the buildings that attract other buildings to fill in the rest of the block.

An incremental approach to urbanism is a critical concept that every planner, engineer, urban designer, architect, citizen, and political leader, needs to understand.


The fact is that we have lived through generation of the instant cities. Development instantly appeared across the landscape over the last 50 years. Like Ramon Noodles, these places have a great exterior picture of what they are supposed to be, claim to have a little bit of everything, and can be prepared in two minutes. Fact is that these are still instant noodles full of salt and flavor additives.

As an urban designer of these places, it was ingrained in us that we could plan the perfect city that the developer could get entitlements and financing. Home buyers were convinced that they could make a great investment in these places, because the town center would be constructed the following year. When the lending stopped and the growth ponzi scheme was revealed, we were all left with our instant town, partially cooked. The partially cooked instant town is as bad as a partially cooked instant noodle meal.

The last five years have proved how important an incremental approach is to the way we build and plan our communities. The market crash pulled us out daydreams funded through cheap money and into the reality of creating wealth with hard work. When the money stopped, we actually became smarter in our choice.

An incremental approach to urbanism can be applied to any built environmental. Rural, Suburban, and Urban, can benefit from this approach. Each environmental will have different needs and possible approaches.

In the following days I will share with you these examples and approaches.

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Greater Productivity

“Our communities need greater productivity.” – Charles Marohn. 

IMG_1657This is one of the most powerful statements about our communities. It is both an observation of the state of the health of our cities, and a solution.

 I would encourage all of you to take the time to check our the Strong Towns site, their blog and Podcast. This is one of the most intelligent discussions occurring about neighborhoods.

Chuck visited Stuart last week, and repeated this statement on productivity several times during his Curb Side Chat. This message is quite simple, but takes a while to really sink in and understand what it means specifically for your community. What does it mean for our community to be more productive?

America is known as the place where the streets are paved in gold. This poetic statement is true in two ways. First, America is a land of opportunity, where hard work and dedication can lead to success. There are countless stories where someone worked hard and became a successful business person. Second, America is also the place where the streets are so costly, that it would be cheaper to use gold bars for paving. Our Multi-Billion dollar roadway projects are now the standard. Our communities do not think twice to hear that a road costs a million dollars a mile to build a road for four new houses.

The latter is the problem that Chuck identifies in his Curb Side Chat. Our cities are built on false wealth wether it is the “build it and they will come,” or over built infrastructure because this is “the standard”. We have accepted the cost for infrastructure, (streets, bridges, pipes, ect.) for our cities. This has resulted in projects that support the development of unsustainable development patterns.

Our communities are creating debt to fund projects, with a pay it forward attitude that is completely unsustainable. Not all debt are bank notes and bonds with a low interest rate. The debt our cities are facing are the large public promises made after the ribbon cutting of the project. Remember, once a project is built, this is only the first level of cost to the community.

The years following the celebratory ribbon cutting, maintenance and replacement begins to set in. This is a cost that our cities must be prepared to pay on an annual basis. It is a ticking time bomb of debt. This is a fiscal problem that is leading our cities to insolvency.

To climb out of this mess, we need to think smarter about our communities and seek opportunities for greater productivity. Greater productivity can be achieved in one of two ways.

First, you can increase the value of your community, which results in increased community value, and results in increased taxable values. Cities can do things like strengthen their identity, promote their neighborhoods, improve the schools, and simplify the permuting process. This option is not about physical boundary growth or increased density. It is focused on encouraging private investment to maximize land within the current codes and regulations.

Strong Towns has undertaken this approach by supporting the Better Brainard Project in a report called Neighborhood First. Please take a few minutes to read this report. I encourage all of you to develop similar reports for your own community. This is a simple low risk solutions that can generate significant impacts to a community. This is a model that should be repeated nationally.

The other solution to creating more productivity is a much harder approach. There are some communities that with the current future land use densities, and current development patterns, you will never be able to generate enough productivity to fund your community. The public sector investment has exceeded private sector development, and you will be forever paying debt service for the obsolete infrastructure of the past. In this case, you will need to dramatically change the patterns in your community. These communities need to look towards suburban retrofits or sprawl repair.

Our communities can be paved with gold once again as the land of opportunity. I see this opportunity growing through Tactical Urbanism, Better Block, and with all of my Walkable Friends. These are all grassroots, bottom up, urbanists finding opportunity and creating increased productivity in their community.

It will not be easy, but we can be change agents. This will lead to changes to the current approach and replace it with an approach as simple as Chucks statement:

“Our communities need greater productivity.”

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Building Recognition Software

I recently downloaded photos from my camera to the computer, and was introduced to a new feature in IPhoto: Faces. This feature allows you to assign a name from your contacts to your photos. This is similar toTagging in Facebook.

I spent over an hour as IPhoto searched my photos, and tagged the faces of all of my family. Michelle and I can now find images of Eddie in an instant.

This software got me thinking about how an Urbanist could use this hardware. I have millions of photos of streets and buildings, which shadow my family pictures. Recent geo-tracking technology on my phone tags the location of where I take many of my images, but could this technology go further?

I wish there was a tagging software for buildings. Just like the facial recognition software, it would be very cool to have software that could assist me in tagging the name or address of the street or building photographs in my library. Possibly this is a task for Pintrest to undertake.

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Two Governments

There are two governments that we all face in the development of place. We either are in communities that do not want any new development and there are communities that want new investment and development. There are many terms to describe these government types. I have found that they are commonly described as “No Growth” and “Pro Growth”.

No Growth Governments are places that are happy with the current conditions and do not want to see any major changes to their community. They may require an extensive process prior to the approval of new development, strongly restrict density or height, require extensive performance standards, require very high permit or impact fees, ect. These communities may require extensive public meetings, or a process that takes months or years to complete.

Pro Growth Governments are places where new investment is encouraged, and the community expects that the current conditions will change rapidly. This could be new places with a need for rapid growth, or old places that need to transform and redevelop. These communities may have an expedited process, or have expansive infrastructure in place.

This seems simple until you attend a public meeting in either situation. I commonly hear local governments complain that one or the other is occurring. Either the no growth government is faced with a major new development or a pro growth government lacks any development interest. The question is why?

Beyond politics there are underlying codes and land development rights. The existing codes either encourage development by right, or restrict uses. There may also be land development rights assigned property outside the community’s targeted area for development. Government Policy does not always match government regulations.

I continue to encourage communities to review their codes on a regular basis. Two questions need to be asked in this review. First, does the code support the community vision. Second, are the regulations understandable. Answering these questions may not be easy or a task that can be completed overnight, but they are critical questions that need to be addresses.

If you are one of these governments, take a look at the underlying codes and development rights in your community. Your community vision is possible

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Florida Congress for the New Urbanism Summit

The next two days, I will be attending the Florida Congress for the New Urbanism Summit. This annual statewide event brings together the New Urbanists, Planners, Engineers, Community Activists, and Public Officials, to discuss the issues facing our communities.

The Summit is one of the most thought provoking gatherings of professionals in the State. Florida is one of the most progressive states advancing the latest ideas on town building. This annual summit opens the curtain behind how these projects were developed. The backstory is revealed, and participants ask “how did you do that?” These are the stories that we can use to learn how to be better at our craft as urbanists.

I invite you to follow my twitter account or the Florida CNU account to virtually follow the ideas and presentations.

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The Lost Art of Urbanism

Through the restless search for Urbanism, there are moments that highlight the lost art of urban design. North Adams, Massachuttess, has an amazing Main Street. However half of the street was demolished and redeveloped through urban renewal. The new portion of the street is an example where the basic principles of urban design have been lost.

 

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Lessons for Mixed Use

20131219-070906.jpgThere are several things that I have learned while planing, coding, and developing, mixed-use projects. These are not all the answers, simply a list of lessons and observations from my own experiences. I want to share this list with you, and i hope that you contribute your own experiences in the comment section.

1. There is a difference between a mixed use district and a mixed use development. All American cities prior to 1960ish were mixed use districts. These places were Walkable, and allowed for a variety of uses to be placed throughout the community. Once traditional patterns were outlawed through zoning, developers built mixed use developments in the form of planned unit development or single building projects under special exemption.

2. Allow for the vertical mix of uses, but do not require it. Is is very unlikely that you will be able to attract a vertical mix of uses. Obstacles outside of planning discourage this. Banking, finance, management, and tenants, all add challenges. We have found that if you can allow for horizontal or live work flex units, which will be able to attract the lenders and start construction.

3. Remember we are reviving a lost craft. In my community, the planners were greedy and demanding. They wanted an instant building that met the ideal of mixed use. Unfortunately, this sacred away development teams that needed more experience and understanding. Do not let the first mixed use building became the last, because of poor execution. Cities have developed over time. It will take time and baby steps for your community to rediscover mixed use development.

4. Match the use to the form. Gas stations can be part of a mixed use district, but will never be successful in a mixed use building. There are certain uses that you need to be very upfront about and restrict. You also need to attract uses by outlining the uses as desirable. Day care, professional offices, service industries, and retail, make great compatible residential partners.

5. Remember that the residents can be your biggest post construction obstacle. Americans are very protective of where they sleep. Like the developer, residents need to be reminded that they have chosen to live in an active place.

6. Do not over code what you want. I find that planners become designers when adding new regulations to a code. This translates into extra requirements to achieve your goal. Make mixed-use the easiest and simplest land use. Right size the parking, reduce the setbacks, reduce open space requirements, ect. In some communities they classify mixed use as a zoning and a future land-use that you can have by right. This moves you directly to go.

7. Use architectural regulations like training wheels. I have found that most architectural requirements found in zoning codes are in conflict with the building code and right of way use requirements. Focus on building frontages, signage, massing, and extension into a right of way.

8. Get the streets right. Walkable building types will fail if your area is not Walkable. Wide sidewalks and on street parking, should be encouraged, if not required. You municipal engineer may cringed at this idea, but they will warm up if you provide an avenue for the development to sign a maintenance agreement or pay for the installation. In this economy, money talks, and on street parking generates tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.

9. Legalize the private use of the sidewalk. Be sure that you can easily allow for sidewalk cafés.
10. Size does not matter, form does. Lowes, Target, and numerous grocery chains, have integrated large foot prints into mixed use developments. Floor plate restrictions complicate an already complicated issue and limit the opportunity for development.

11. Allow for review flexibility. Always include an ability for review staff to allow alternative options. This will allow for shuttle flexibility in the design, and provide leverage in negotiating good design.

12. Be prepared to adjust the code as you go. I have seen many cases where the development met the code and had a vertical mix of uses. Unfortunately, the building looked terrible, the community hated it, and the development bankrupted the developer. Include the ability for the reviewing staff to have some discretion in the approval process. Be prepared to make some code changes after the first few projects. This is not failure, this is calibration.

13. Be sure that your code includes accommodation for what I call Transitionals. Tranistionals are suburbanites returning to an urban context. They need help transitioning back into compact development. Offer some training wheels while they learn to down size, or until they discover bike share. This may include the construction of dedicated residential parking that can be phased out. Focus on the details that really matter that can never be altered, like where the front entrance of the residential is located.

14. On-Street Parking and Mixed-Use go together like Peanut Butter and Jelly. Yes, you can have a sandwich with only peanut butter, but lacks something. The benefits of on-street parking are exponentially multiplied when there is a mix of uses.

Please share your own observations in the comment section of this post. I would love to hear your stories of what has or has not worked for the successful integration of uses in your community.

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Merry Christmas!

20131224-135521.jpgI would like to wish all of you a very merry Christmas. I hope that all of you will have a safe and happy holiday. This is one of the most amazing times of the year.

I have a lot to be blessed with this year. The biggest of these is the birth of my son. Eddie is celebrating his first Christmas, and seeing his first snow. No one can really put words to the miracle of becoming parents. It is the most amazing miracle. Along with his adventures as a Son of a New Urbanist, he is beginning to graduate from crawling to walking. He has been showing off his skills the past week with his Grand Parents.

Have a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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