Choose Your Neighborhood in Life and in Death

Land uses change.  Before you know it, the elementary school down the block is converted into loft condominiums, that run-down strip mall is replaced with an upscale shopping and entertainment destination, and the 40-acre family farm becomes eighteen 4,000 square foot McMansions.  But one land use is etched in stone for all eternity—the cemetery.

Many cities struggle with figuring out how to continue growth and development around these multi-acre expanses of spiritual and historical, but generally unusable, land.  In Falls Church, Virginia, an independently-produced concept plan for the transformation of a sprawling auto-oriented suburban area into a mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood had to direct all new transit lines and pedestrian and bike trails around the 12-acre Oakwood Cemetery.  But treating the cemetery as completely undevelopable land may be better than the alternative.  In central New Jersey, Route 1 runs directly through a cluster of three cemeteries dating from the mid 19th century.

Aaron Odland notes in an article in Landscape Architecture magazine that, “A community is bound by living and by death, and it is this later connection that is often diminished or even willfully ignored in our modern, urban public realm.”  Some people are thinking today about this very topic—how can we use these well-manicured, park-like settings to bring current city residents closer to those who once lived there, while providing much-needed usable open space.  After all, Victorian garden cemeteries, like Highgate in London, were laid out so visitors could stroll along tree-lined paths on a Sunday afternoon. They were, in fact, the predecessors to the modern suburb: “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place as idyllic as this, but without all the dead people?”

The idea of cemetery as recreational space has fallen out of fashion, but today these spaces are again being used creatively in some cities.  2010 is the tenth season of Cinespia, a weekly outdoor movie screening inside Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Visitors watch movies fitting of the atmosphere, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while seated amid the headstones of Hollywood actors.  Along with guided historical tours, Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, features a community garden and a bike trail around monuments engraved with famous local names like Mellon, Frick, and Heinz. And Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery has an off-leash dog park.

Surely not everyone is comfortable with their deceased loved ones’ eternal resting place being lounged upon for a night at the movies, but maybe cemeteries should provide choice of atmosphere in death, like cities provide choice of atmosphere in life.  Some may choose to spend all eternity in a secluded place visited only for remembrance and reflection, while others may think of nothing better than to spend the afterlife in a multi-use, vibrant, and community-oriented setting.

Making Livability a Law

Following on the heels of the 2009 announcement of the joint initiative on livability between the United States Department of Transportation’s (DOT), Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD), and Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), members of both the Senate and House have introduced bills that would make coordinating housing and transportation in an environmentally responsible way, a law.  Both bills are similar in their recommendations to promote sustainable development via coordinated housing, transportation, economic development policies through competitive grants and create a central office within HUD to manage the livability program.

Stakeholders around the country are applauding these efforts to create “livable communities”.  As housing and transportation are two of the largest household expenditures, it is high time the nation look for ways to develop them so as to compliment each other rather than having access to one at the expense of the other.  In many communities, alternative modes of travel are not an option, forcing residents to rely on driving to get were they need to be.  It’s a congestion issue, it’s an access issue, it’s an issue for our crumbling infrastructure, and it’s an environmental issue.  A community with both transportation and housing options are fertile grounds for a better quality of life and sustained economic and environmental development.

But there is plenty that can go wrong in planning to improve livability.  Take Los Angeles’s W Development, for example where coordinating transportation with other development plans has not worked that well.  The development lacks many features ranging from a poorly connected transit station, no bicycle parking facilities, and a blocked off areas for private use that could be used as a subway exit which could otherwise make it a truly accessible, multimodal facility.  Other pitfalls of livability arise when trying to cater to variety of social and economic classes while wanting to take advantage of already existing (and expensive) infrastructure.  How do you start over with so much at stake?

This isn’t to imply that planning a livable community is a bad thing.  The question really is what defines livability and how do cities ensure they are livable?  Does it mean building quaint town centers riddled with bike lines, sidewalks, and sleek transit facilities where people can walk to stores, work, and school?  Perhaps, and many instances this is a viable form of development that have positive impacts on economic growth.  But in a larger sense, it means ensuring cities are looking at what their future needs are and creating transportation and housing policies to accommodate that.  It means cities – through input from local elected officials, planners, the business community, and other stakeholders – deciding what needs to be done for their community’s economic growth and setting goals to achieve it.  It means looking forward – instead of having to look back 20 years from now and going back to the drawing board.

“Death and Life” Lives !!

Jane Jacobs wrote one of the most influential urban affairs books of the twentieth century.

“Death and Life of Great American Cities” — published in 1961 — has become a talisman, cited by many and sundry to advance their views and proposals. Jacobs, who died in 2006, is an icon of the field, and her views have become “the common wisdom of our time,” says Paul Goldberger, a prominent architecture critic. 

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “Death and Life,” it’s surely time now to think freshly and skeptically about her ideas. We don’t need more acolytes of Jane Jacobs; we need people who will think as hard and as well as she did about “the kind of problem a city is.”

The very first paragraph of “Death and Life” promises “an attack on the principles and aims that have shaped modern orthodox city planning and rebuilding.” At mid-century, that orthodoxy included urban renewal and highway construction, and it was carried out through such elements as big projects, separation of uses, and “blight” designations followed by clearance. Jacobs’ writing and her activism in New York City’s Greenwich Village contributed immensely to the unraveling —but not the disappearance — of that approach.  The book bristles with pointed criticisms and sharp analyses that aim to burst the modernist orthodoxy. 

It’s a wonderful book, strongly written, and well-worth reading today. 

More people should read the book before they cite Jacobs as an ally for their projects. One recent writer confessed to relying on second- and third-hand sources and to referencing “Death and Life” in support of “whatever I was working on.” Upon actually reading the book, she concluded that the “New Urbanism” movement’s implied claim to Jacobs’ approval is unwarranted. 

We now need studies that follow Jacobs’ advice: closely observed, fearless studies of the way things do or don’t function on the ground in big cities and also in towns, suburbs and little cities, and regions. 

To read the whole column—  “Emerging Issues: Wrestling with Jane Jacobs,” go to the icon for the June 21 issue of Nation’s Cities Weekly on the NLC homepage, www.nlc.org.

Public Invited to Comment on New and Small Starts Transit Projects

The Federal Transit Administration is looking for cities to comment on the proposed changes to the “New Starts and Small Starts” transit project criteria for federal funding.  In the beginning of the year, Transportation Secretary LaHood announced that DOT intended to expand the definition of “cost effectiveness” used evaluate federal support for local public transportation initiatives and support transit oriented development.

This comment period asks stakeholders for suggestions on the inclusion of factors such as environmental benefits and economic development impact when it determines the effectiveness of a project and whether to recommend federal funding.   In past years, the Department depended on reduced travel time as the major factor in determining a project’s cost effectiveness.  This proposed shift in federal transit policy would be another step in the administration’s effort to promote livable communities and support comprehensive planning that includes transportation, economic development and environmental goals.

Comments are due to DOT by August 2, 2010 and all cities considering a request or federal aid now or in the future are encourage to review the proposed rules and provide feedback to the Department on how these proposed changes would impact their community and their proposed transit projects.    DOT will be holding outreach on these proposed changes in the following cities on the dates below.  Webinars for commenting will also be conducting.

Additional information can be found here: http://www.fta.dot.gov/news/calendar/news_events_11733.html.

Chicago, IL Tuesday, June 29
9:00 am to 1:00 pm
Courtyard Marriott Magnificent Mile
Ontario Ballroom
165 East Ontario Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
San Francisco, CA Wednesday, June 30
9:00 am to 1:00 pm
Courtyard Marriott San Francisco Downtown
Rincon Hill Ballroom
299 Second Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Dallas, TX Monday, July 12
9:00 am to 1:00 pm
Hyatt Regency Dallas
Reunion Ballroom F
300 Reunion Blvd
Dallas, TX 75207
Washington, D.C. Thursday, July 15
9:00 am to 1:00 pm
Washington Court Hotel
Atrium Ballroom
525 New Jersey Ave
NW Washington, DC 20001

Life on the Sidewalk

Many cities are blessed with neighborhoods that offer cafes, restaurants and small parks with tables and chairs or benches out on the sidewalk. In Washington, D.C. the neighborhood around the historic Eastern Market is a vortex for public life, especially on a weekend when merchants and shoppers sip coffee amidst strollers, kids in sports uniforms, musicians and groups of slightly overwhelmed tourists. 

One does not have to visit Paris or Vienna to enjoy the sights and sounds of life on a sidewalk. The café and the park bench are universal concepts familiar both to Jacques Brel and to Forrest Gump. In China and most of Asia outdoor life takes on a whole new dimension as entire blocks are occupied by food vendors whose tables spill out into the street. It’s a festival of food and acquaintances at every meal. 

City governments are investing considerable resources on green or open space as the momentum for sustainability takes hold. All this is laudable because trees and grass and benches beside a pedestrian path are not only good for the environment but also good for the soul. The concrete, brick and glass of many cities can drown out the beauty and serenity of nature. In some cities the white noise is so intense that you can’t hear the birds chirp. 

A park or garden in a city is a refuge, a haven, an escape from the speed and tumult of living is close proximity to others. Such places offer a measure of isolation and solitude to restore and renew. The sidewalk on the other hand, with its interwoven mix of cafés, shops and offices, is a place of energy, activity and interaction. It is the antithesis to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

Perhaps this is why cities like San Francisco and New York are extending sidewalks into space formerly used for parking. These “parklets” are tiny plazas sometimes not larger than two or three parking spaces. In the case of San Francisco, the new configuration is funded by neighborhood businesses and other private sector partners. The idea is meant to enliven the street, to lure pedestrian traffic, to support local businesses, and generally to increase the fun quotient of an otherwise unappealing stretch of sidewalk and roadway. 

There is a need for the communal experience. In Ancient Rome it was the baths. In modern America most people get this experience at the Town Center or the mall. Whether it’s the parklet or the café or the mall, the experience is generally the same – a coming together with your fellow city dwellers. Urbanist Jane Jacobs captured the value of these interactions best. “Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

FOR RENT: Cozy Cottage, Serene Backyard Setting, Landlord Close-by

The City of Seattle recently amended a restricting and outdated zoning regulation.  This change encourages homeowners to reject—to an extent—the separation of housing types and the segregation of people of different income levels. 

The zoning change allows homeowners in single-family residential neighborhoods to construct small, free-standing cottages on their properties for rental purposes.  USA Today reports that one Seattle homeowner plans to rent his newly constructed 437-square-foot one-bedroom cottage for up to $900 per month, about the average for a one-bedroom apartment in the area.

So far, owners and renters of Seattle’s 50 new backyard cottages couldn’t be happier.  Once past the initial construction investment, homeowners get a supplemental income for their mortgages.  Living the “single-family home life” appeals to many renters, who would otherwise be confined to apartment living.  The city benefits from increased neighborhood density, which has the potential to reduce sprawl, ease traffic congestion, reduce pollution, and make efficient use of city services.  Best of all for many homeowners, they have strong control over who moves into their neighborhood and shares their property—cottage renters are often relatives, friends, or acquaintances. 

The city lifted the single-family zoning restriction, unleashing homeowners’ inclination to cash in on their largest investment by building cottages on their properties.  Some other cities have enacted similar zoning changes, including Denver, Colo., Faribault, Minn., and Santa Cruz, Calif.  But zoning is a mechanism for enforcing local planning practices, not a planning process unto itself.  If a city supports retrofitting single-family neighborhoods in order to supplement homeowners’ income, provide new affordable housing options, and increase density, it must follow through with appropriate comprehensive planning strategies. 

Cities will need to re-familiarize themselves with practices that are downplayed in the more common developer-constructed, agency-leased rental housing world.  What are the construction standards for new cottages?  Are design guidelines in place?  How are construction and design standards enforced?  Do transit systems in auto-oriented neighborhoods need to be redesigned to accommodate cottage renters who may not own cars?  How are additional parking needs addressed?  What regulations exist to equitably provide this new housing option to prospective renters?  Answers to these questions will be determining factors for whether the “cottage movement” will enhance the livability of existing communities or perpetuate the economic, social, and standard-of-living divide between those who rent and those who own.