How did you fund that?

This is the question receive on many of my projects. This is also the question I ask when I see ridiculous projects.

There are four simple principles that I follow on any project:

  1. Want is the community vision? Any investment must be in alignment with the community’s values and principles. This is actually the hardest task, and it does not necessarily require and expensive consultant to complete. Planners need to listen to the citizens of their community. A vision is not a solution, which is a common pitfall. A vision is the moral rudder for the decision making, and it is what you will test future investments against.
  2. Follow the Money. The recent economy has taught us that no single project can be completed with a single funding source. Your funding source may not specially outline the exact purpose of your project, however it may be part of your project. Do not be afraid to ask direct beneficiaries of a project to participate. For example, the adjacent businesses to a new road project may be willing to contribute funding or accept maintenance to add additional landscaping. Unlike underground pipes, many property owners are willing to fund items that beautify their properties.
  3. What is the return on investment to the local community? This is the most complicated question to answer, and there no formulas for this evaluation. Most communities have never even through about this in the decision making process for the investment of capital projects. Your return on investment must always return back to your community vision. New tax revenue or job creation through economic development is one measure of success, but there are others. For example, by designing a lower speed roadway may result in a safer street with less accidents. This may not generate a cash however, this may result in more walking, quieter streets, and general better quality of life.
  4. Is this the most cost effective and simple way to achieve this project? You do not need complicated engineering gymnastics, or grandiose plans to improve you community. Seek out the simple solutions to meet the above objectives. On a recent roadway project, we found that flooding and Stormwater management was a critical issue. Conventional engineering suggested adding new gutters to catch the water, new pipes, to move the water, and a giant pond to treat the water. This would require an extensive engineering project that our community could not afford. When we stepped back, we found that we could enhance the existing swales and add a few new pipes under the cross streets. This simple solution addressed the problem at a fraction of the cost. This saving provided us the ability to first, get something done, and second reserve funding for the next project.

We all have to remember that instant cities are a very new concept, and we may never see the instant building prior to the great housing bubble. Authentic Cities are built over time. We can achieve great things, if we take small steps in a continued effort towards the community’s vision.

Posted in Advocacy, budget, Design, Funding, Infrastructure, Planning, Urban Design | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Support Strong Towns

This week our friends at Strong Towns are winding up a week long membership drive.

If you have not already, take a few minutes and become a member. 

Strong Towns is working hard to advocate for better communities. The ideas shared through their blog, podcast, and curbside chats, are changing the way we value cities.

As a Strong Towns Member, you have access to more content, more knowledge, and keys to the member only discussion board.

If you are not a member, take a minute to join today.

Posted in Advocacy, Public Policy, The Profession | 1 Comment

Congress for the New Urbanism Brain Dump

niagara22logo-smallI have returned from the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, and it is taking me an extraordinary amount of time to organize my thoughts.

Many of you have already shared your thoughts and impressions of the Congress. This year, it is taking me longer to share what I learned and experienced during the Congress. One reason is that I have an energized 18 month old running and grabbing everything in sight. The other reason is that there were several impactful sessions I attended. I really want to take the time to dig into each of these ideas.

Here is a really quick brain dump of things I am thinking about.

1. Tactical Urbanism is not just for hipsters and dissidents. Tactical Urbanism is a build, measure, learn, approach to building here at places. Mike Lydon explains it best with this simple idea: instead of sitting at a meeting discussing what you are going to do, just use the meeting to do something.

2. Lean Urbanism has the brightest minds working on defining a streamlined approach to building projects. The process to define Lean is as complex as cities. Something good will come out of this, but it may be in six volumes.

3. A new group of faith-based urbanists are emerging out of the Congress for New Urbanism. Quietly over the years faith-based design has been present in the Congress, but has never been highlighted. This group is working to share these projects, and begin to outline the various obstacles in cities when developing projects like churches.

4. The Strong Towns Boot Camp is traveling to other cities. This hands on workshop returns planning to cities through the eyes of City management and Leadership. I encourage more of our cities to host a Boot Camp. 5. The Next American Urbanism shared their Charter. Expect more from this group which will add depth to the New Urbanism dialogue.

6. Chuck Marohn is an engineer, planner, and now a comedian? That’s right, Chuck hosted a Late Show during a Next Gen event. You can watch the opener here. Once again, Chuck shows us all that he can break the mold.

7. Every city needs to do a pop up event. Pop up events are not hosted because they are actions. The local host committee held several different pop up events in Buffalo during the Congress. I enjoyed the two parklets on the street in front of the Lafayette Hotel. The impact was amazing. First, this event was open to everyone in the city. A handful of the most passionate participants were not attending the Congress. They wanted to make their city better through positive action. Secondly, the Lafayette Hotel is part hotel, part condo, with ground floor commercial. the residents of the building showed up and started asking questions. They wanted to know more, and how they could participate. I actually heard one couple explain that if they new about the event sooner, they would have changed their evening plans to hang out in the parklets.

8. Buffalo has something that is critical to its successful future: history. Cities like Buffalo, are unique. The vast depopulation of these cities have sent refugees of the city across the country. I met several of these refugees that are returning. They are returning because of their family history, or childhood memories of the city. This is a powerful draw that will never show up in a market study, and can never be recreated in a new city. Buffalo needs to embrace this and use this to their advantage.

9. When you tear up a street, first, you do not have to put it back the way you found it. Secondly, you do not have to isolate roadway features into grooves. Victor Dover and John Massengale’s book Street Design highlights how we have gone overboard in the advancement of Complete Streets by separating every user into a tidy groove in the street. Ben Hamilton-Baillie shared how projects like his work in Poynton can prioritize the pedestrian by mixing users.

10. The Congress for the New Urbanism raised the bar with their Charter Awards. For the first time, they did not select a recipient for one of the categories. This is an important decision, and the selection committee should be commended. The Congress needs to continue to raise the bar on these submissions.

As you can see, the time in Buffalo was well worth the trip. I expect more to come.

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Incremental Urbanism Through Repaving

Rio_707Welcome to summer and orange barrel season. Orange barrels can be a sign to more then just more asphalt, they can be a sign to something better. These round soldiers may be alerting you to an incremental project.

There are several ways for communities to repave their roads. In my area, it is common to mill down the top layer of asphalt, and then repave a fresh layer of asphalt. This process provides an opportunity to improve conditions.

Several questions can be raised when your community is grinding down their streets.

  1. Do we have to repave or replace all the asphalt existing today? Believe it or not, most of our roads are too wide. Years of maintenance, or just over building have led to extremely wide travel lanes. These wider lanes result in higher roadway speeds, increased stormwater runoff, and additional maintenance costs. Simple ideas like repaving only the lanes you need can save communities millions. You do not need to repave the whole road for the sake of paving.
  2. Can we stripe it differently? If your roads are bring repaved, then you have to also re-stripe the street. When the road is re-striped, there are numerous opportunities to improve place. You can reduce lane widths to match the community context, stripe new on street parking, or bike lanes.
  3. Does the street drain properly? IMG_1644I live in Florida, so it is not uncommon to get several inches of rain in an hour, and stormwater management is a key element to every project in my area. Repaving provides the opportunity to grade a road to drain. Asphalt contractors can do amazing work to add elevation or remove elevations. If you have a stormwater system, you can also add curbing for a minimal cost prior to repaving.
  4. Are there additional needs? A paved road should last over 30 years, so when you are repaving, now is the time to address other community issues. This may include utility expansion, drain pipe maintenance, new curbing, or anything that would require you to cut and patch the asphalt. For example, on a recent project we added 300 feet of valley gutter at the edge of pavement. We did this because we knew that within the next 3 years, we would be making improvements between the edge of pavement and the right of way. It has not been decided whether on-street parking, landscaping, or stormwater management would be placed in this area. By adding the curb now, we provided a clean edge for the future improvement.
  5. Is the road actually in the center of the right of way? Paving originally occurred where people were driving. In older communities, the pavement may favor one side of the right of way, which on the surface may not be a big deal. As your community advances from rural and suburban roads to more urban sections, this becomes a problem. When you are repaving, it is worth checking this. It is actually amazing to see what happens when the center lines of roads align. Intersections begin to fit in the right of way, adequate spacing is provided for sidewalks and street trees, and the remaining right of way opens itself to future opportunities of investment.

The point of all of this is to make simple improvements through the standard maintenance and upkeep of your community. Repaving does not have to be the ultimate urban intervention, it is simply one step on the path to better placemaking.

Posted in Advocacy, building, communities, Design, Engineering, Florida, Infrastructure, Public Policy, The Profession, Tools | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

CNU Next Gen

imageEvery group’s success is really measured on the next generation of the organizations succession. A group has emerged from The Congress for the New Urbanism: CNU Next Gen. The CNU Next Gen not only represents the future, it represents a very bright future for New Urbanism.

This year, the Congress in Buffalo has been positively influenced by this vibrant group. If you are an attendee of the Congress, you could not miss all of the programmed events on the schedule. If you are a tech addict, you probably used the CNU App which was developed by the voices of Next Gen. For those of you who were a little more adventurous, you may have also attended some of the late night off-program events.


Next Gen also brought a huge virtual presence to the Congress. Many of you that could not attend were able to real time updates through Twitter, Facebook, and various blogs. I received several questions, and participated in several virtual discussions via the blogosphere.

Everyone of these posts reached thousands of people across the globe. This increases the awareness of our organization. It is this type of sharing that not only makes The Congress for the New Urbanism stronger, it demonstrates a bright future for our organization.


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Great Good Place

Where is your third place? The Congress for the New Urbanism is one of the great gatherings of thinkers on the built world. This year I was fortunate to here Ray Oldenburg.

Oldenburg is the author that outlined the importance of the Third Place.

In the built world, we have three places. Our first place is our home or the place we live. The second place is the place you work. The third place, is your personal place. This could be a local coffee shop, corner bar, or community garden. Third Places are the places you choose to spend your time. Recent research, shows that the Third Place is one of the most critical places when people are looking for places to live.

It was a pleasure to hear Oldenburg speak of this in his own words. A big thanks goes out to the Buffalo Host Commitee and the Next Gen for hosting this event.

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Congress for the New Urbanism 22

This week the leading thinkers are meeting in Buffalo, New York. The Congress for the New Urbanism is gathering for their annual Congress. For me, this is one of the most important events I attend annually.

I will be posting from the Congress this week. If you are in a Town, then let’s be sure to meet up. The Local Host Committee has a very active Next Gen group that have organized social events every night of the Congress throughout the City.

You can also follow the #CNU22 hashtag to get up to the minute update of the sessions.

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Head Out Angled Parking

Head Out Angled Parking is one of the tools you need to have in your Urban Design Toolkit. Head Out Angle Parking is also know as Back In Angled Parking or Reversed Angled Parking, and is used in cities across North America.

Walkable West Palm Beach requested that I share this tool with all of you. West Palm Beach, like many cities could benefit from adding Head Out Angled Parking into their parking toolkit for the city. Take a moment to check Walkable West Palm Beach, and if you are in South East Florida, be sure to attend one of their meet ups to hang out with fellow urbanists.

Head Out Angled Parking is not new, however it is different then the parking you may be familiar with with the residents of your community. Change and the unknown can lead to confusion and conflict. To help the public understand the benefits, and to remove the mystery from this parking, a great informational video has been created.

Walkable 101: Head Out Angled Parking from Martin County CRA on Vimeo.

Dan Burden and the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute developed video to explain all of the benefits of this type of parking. The video was developed to inform the public, and is open source. Please feel free to share the link. Walkable and Livable Communities Institute can also provide digital video that communities can use on their local public access television channels.

There are a couple of lessons I have learned in utilizing this tool.

  1. Technical Benefits. I live in a community where the engineering department does not permit backing onto major roadways. This makes a lot of sense, because when you back out, it is hard to see oncoming traffic. This poses a problem in areas that need additional parking, when you are transitioning from a Stroad to Street, or when you are doing a road diet. Our Engineering Department does allow Head Out Angled Parking, because the first move of this parking is the same as parallel parking which is permitted on these streets, and the ease and position of the driver when exiting the space.
  2. Its Engineering. Engineers love to solve problems. Adding On-Street parking can pose a lot of problems. What will happen when you loose lanes, will the drainage still work, will people know how to do it, will drivers have clear sight lines, what about the safety of cyclists, ect, ect. There are no silver bullets with Head Out Angled Parking, but there is a lot of technical information available to fulfill the technical desires of any engineer. I have found that the engineers I work with actually get excited about this type of parking. Remember that engineers has safety at top of mind, and Head Out Angled Parking is one of the safest way to park.
  3. Name and Branding. Head Out Angled Parking will be new to most communities. I first described this parking as Back In Angled Parking, however this received a lot of push back in communities. Drivers love to go forward, but hate to back up. Calibrating the name to Head Out focuses on the positive. I also found that you need at least 2 minutes to fully explain this type of parking to an audience. When an audience hears something they are adverse to, they will shut down and stop listening. Head Out is positive, and provides you the beachhead to share the concept.
  4. We want more. Head Out Angled Parking can yield 30% more parking on a city block. Almost every street retrofit where I would propose Head Out Angled Parking are locations where business owners want more parking and the previous generations over paved/widened the right of way. These types of projects and tools need local stakeholder support. I have found that the desire for more parking overcomes the concerns of change.
  5. Communication. Engineers are not generally the best communicators. New ideas need strong communicators to work with stakeholders and the public. This may require making the same presentation multiple times to various stakeholder groups, picking up the phone, and fielding daily questions. When you are proposing new things like Head Out Angled Parking, include a team member that can focus on communication.
  6. Just Do It. Many times I hear that a community is going to do a “demonstration project.” This is typically 3-4 Head Out Angled Spaces on a vacant street, or in a parking lot near City Hall. On the surface, this seems like a great idea so citizens can try it, and city leadership can see how it works. The problem is that these demonstrations are completed in isolation to the way that cities work. This would be like place 20 feet of sidewalk in a vacant lot to see if people would walk in your community. Take the time to work with your community to educate and cultivate demand in a location where Head Out Angled Parking can be integrated into a project.
Posted in Complete Streets, Design, Education, Engineering, Infrastructure, Parking, Tools, Urban Design | 3 Comments

Paper Solutions

We are on a constant search to find ways to improve our built environment. Every professional group publishes annual reports highlighting best practices, new techniques, and exemplar projects. These are the projects that inspire and awards community, but do they really empower us to improve our communities?

I would like to suggest a simple solution to improve our communities, which could categorize as a Paper Solution.

A Paper Solution is a single or multiple policy or code change that reduces confusion, complexity, or ridiculousness from a community’s bylaws, while increasing the productivity, value, and quality of a community.

Paper Solutions are not glamorous. They do not require extensive public funding, they can be completed without consultants, and they do not take years to accomplish. These are in the most basic form a change or addition of words.

Paper Solutions can be extremely complex, and will require political leadership. These changes, no matter how simple, may take more energy to explain why then to actually make the change.

There are a couple of examples that I have found in my work that seem to be common in local zoning and development codes. These are not the only ones, but a handful of commonly observed issues that could be changed with text edits to your local codes.

20130828-203129.jpgMinimum Lot Sizes

Many zoning codes require a minimum lot size or width. The problem is that many times these requirements are placed over existing plats. For example, in parts of Florida, land was platted at 25 or 50 foot lot widths. Over time, various regulations were adopted requiring a minimum lot size of 60 feet. This means that a property owner would need to acquire 2-3 lots to build one home. Removing or changing the minimum lot size provides greater opportunity for private investment to occur in a community.

2013-08-16 02.18.12Mixed-Use Development

I have found that most communities have planned for too much commercial in their land-use maps. Multi-mile commercial corridors or 20-plus acre sites outside a downtown, will never be sustainable. The volume of roof tops and cars necessary to support the successful development of these uses, will never exist. A simple solution to this issue is to introduce residential uses to these commercial areas. This introduction of an additional use, will allow the market to act.

I have written on the Lessons of Mixed-Use, which explain how to be successful in mixed-use development.

Accessory Dwelling Units

The demographics and economics of our communities are changing. Accessory Dwelling Units offer three key benefits. First, they offer an affordable housing option. Secondly, they provide an income source for the property owner. Finally, these units provide an opportunity to agin in place or with your family. These small units fulfill many positive goals, however many communities have outlawed these units.

20130603-102446.jpgMinimum Parking Requirements

Parking is the most regulated use in every zoning code. The code tells property owners how many spaces they need, where they are to be placed, how to access the spaces, and how to hide or landscape the parking. More intrusive site features like dumpsters or mechanical equipment have less regulation. Changing a parking code to provide greater flexibility or reductions to required spaces can assist our communities.

Parking is really a private sector business decision.  Development located far away from a community or isolated from other uses, will need more parking. These uses may change business names, but will never change there need for more parking. Small commercial centers near residential districts, will change uses over time. Office may change to medical, or retail may change to restaurant. By code, these changes will require more additional minimum parking. If the private sector is able to lease a space for these uses with the existing parking, are they not stating that do not need more parking? Flexibility in the code could allow for this investment.

20131119-095722.jpgUse Existing Rights of Way

Right of Way is one of the largest single land use in our communities. I have found that most cites dedicate 60% of their total land area to roads. This land can be more productive then just moving cars. Parking, storm water management, and open space, are common amenities that can be easily added to existing rights of way.

The private sector is willing to develop these features when given the chance. If a commercial development’s success requires more parking, then why not allow on-street parking? These improvements are long term lasting public investments. Simple policies such as right of way use agreements, or roadway maintenance agreements can facilitate a private sector investment in the public realm. The adjacent businesses benefit with an improved and more productive frontage. Our communities benefit with upgrades and improvements to the public realm, which result in greater land productivity, increased property values, and a partner to maintain the right of way.

Share Your Own

There are countless other simple changes that I encourage all of you to share.

Posted in Advocacy, Affordable Housing, Codes, communities, Complete Streets, Developers, Parking, Planning, Public Policy, Tools, Urban Design | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Safer Driving?!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADriving is the most dangerous thing that you can do in public. Automobile accidents are the largest cause of death of children. This number is so large, it surpasses the next three causes of deaths combined. Driving is legal, it is regulated and subsidized by the government, and it is an encouraged activity by numerous agencies and organizations.

You are actually expected to crash your car. The car companies have installed safety features to deploy when the inevitable happens. You are required to pay for insurance so you can pay when the inevitable happens. The built world is regulated to allow you the adequate space for the investable crash. The world is built not on the premise of If, but on a premise of When.

Congress is now under pressure to require back up cameras in all new cars. The argument makes a lot of sense. Too many senseless death occur when cars are backing up, so a camera provides a rear look to assist drivers.

This could be the next safety advancement to rival the seatbelt, but is really the best way to make driving safer? I saw no. No technology, no matter how high tech, can abolish stupidity.

Before we propose another expensive feature the car, I suggest we take the first step to increase the requirements to drive a car. My driving test was comprised of a multiple choice test that took 15 minutes to complete and you only had to get 70% of the questions right. Following the written test and a few weeks of companion chaperoned driving, I had a 20 minute driving test. In less then an hour of examination, I had the right to drive a one ton piece of steel filled with 15 gallons of volatile gas down a public street. Now, when I need to renew my license, I can go to a website and get a new one in the mail.

Before we propose another gadget for a car, I think we need to raise the bar on driving in this Country. Better drivers will lead to safer driving. We really need to demand better before we allow someone to drive one ton of steel on our public streets.

Driving is not a right it is a privilege.

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