Our government-mandated parking lots

Our country features such overgrown parking lots because urban planners thought they were smarter than property owners and developers. The ego-centric belief that government do-gooders are more wise than the actual people who must pay for the property dates to midcentury.

From a 1954 American Planning Association publication:

The shopper wants a space he can find easily, with a minimum of difficulty in moving around the parking area, and one that is located near the store or store group in which he is going to shop. The fault is sometimes with the developers who have underestimated the need for parking space or found the land too valuable to be devoted to parking.

Read the article at Strong Towns.

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Why America keeps condoning its zoning

So, why did America adopt its decades-old exclusionary zoning policies and culture? Blame the central governments of the 1920s:

The leap from morality to legalism was solidified by the Euclid Supreme Court decision of 1926, which confirmed cities’ right to segregate land uses. Around that time, the American Planning Association encouraged cities to adopt zoning codes that would promote, “health, safety, morals, convenience, prosperity and the general welfare.” In other words, they had carte blanche to be as exclusive, racist, and elitist as they wanted. But whereas racism and elitism would not hold water publicly, planners came up with economic and political justifications for strict separation of uses.

And it’s not just to bolster ownership:

The United States does not have an “ownership society” so much as it has a sprawl society. The United States ranks 17th out of a survey of 26 developed countries in homeownership rates, so homeownership per se does not explain why European cities are compact and American cities are spread out. The difference lies is in whether those homes share walls with other homes. …

Zoning was originally conceived as a way of separating noxious or harmful land uses from people who might be harmed by them. Europeans enacted hierarchical zoning, in which objectionable uses were excluded and anything not explicitly excluded was permitted.

The United States takes the opposite approach. Noxious uses aren’t segregated. Instead, prized uses are the ones that are segregated. Under this “flat” zoning scheme, “urban and suburban worlds in which everything was not only in its place but was also in its own separate place.”

Read the entire review of Sonja Hirt’s book “Zoning in the USA” at Planetizen.

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Three ways the Ash Brokerage HQ connects downtown Fort Wayne

Renderings-1-withlogos

My family can tell you I was as excited as a schoolgirl at Build-a-Bear when I saw the drawings for the planned Ash Brokerage headquarters in downtown Fort Wayne. This. Is. TREMENDOUS. What a fantastic looking building for our city.

But as I studied the building yesterday, I came across some disgruntled comments about it, and they were more than just complaints about Cindy’s Diner. (Note: Cindy’s current location is not original, and all involved parties want to find it a new home.) Some people didn’t like the modern look; some didn’t like the sheer size of it.

Let me try to lay some fears to rest. There are three tangible ways this structure will help connect downtown.

It connects to the structures of downtown

I’ve heard commenters say that this doesn’t match the historic nature of downtown Fort Wayne. And it certainly doesn’t look like the Star Bank building or Lincoln Tower to the east, or the block of buildings across Wayne Street.

But downtown Fort Wayne is not in any way a uniformly historic-looking downtown. Right across Berry Street from the Ash HQ is the modern looking Metro building. One block away is the second-tallest building, PNC Bank, and not far is One Summit Square, both of which are strikingly modern. This new structure complements them handsomely.

Besides, good design isn’t always about matching. Often, it’s about mixing. Contrast is a great design tool, whether we’re talking about typefaces, colors, or buildings. Historic and contemporary can live very comfortably side by side as long as the next point is taken into account.

It connects to the sidewalks of downtown

I think a lot of people have been turned off by modern architecture because of some of our unfortunate “starchitects” who forgot about relating the building to the street and pedestrian. But that’s not the fault of a modern design.

David Sucher, author of “City Comforts,” identifies the Three Rules for Urban Design; that is, the elements that mark an urban design versus a suburban one. It’s all in the site plan:

  1. Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line).
  2. Make the building front “permeable” (i.e., no blank walls).
  3. Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

Look at the sketch of the building above. Just like a great urban building of the early 20th century, this early 21st century one is friendly to pedestrians. The retail filling most of the first floor softens what could have been a foreboding blank steel wall. We citizens of Fort Wayne will rarely get to see the building from the angle seen above, but most of us will walk by it. It’s much friendlier than a parking lot.

It connects to the space of downtown

Currently, the parts of downtown west of this spot — including the library, the Ferguson Building at Berry and Ewing, and the soon-to-be University of Saint Francis downtown campus — can feel a little isolated from the rest of downtown. That’s partly because of how large surface parking lots dampen pedestrian traffic.

Consider how successful Lunch on the Square at the corner of Calhoun and Wayne is, and then consider how far you have to walk to find surface parking from there. The parking garages lacking first-floor retail or office space aren’t helping, but there is no huge block-sized surface parking within a few blocks.

But this is one of the greatest gifts of this project: It fills a hole in our downtown. It connects the areas to its west and east, and to its north and south. Downtown will feel more “whole” and will feel even larger, in a wonderful way.

This is big news for downtown Fort Wayne, and not just for the developers. It’s big news for all of us who call this city home. A thriving downtown is the nucleus of a city, and this only strengthens our core. Great job, Ash Brokerage, for investing in downtown, and in all of us.

Image courtesy of the City of Fort Wayne

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Mobile Connectivity and Urban Interaction

What does it mean to be social?

Being “social” used to mean that a person was outgoing and enjoyed interacting with people – an extrovert. Today, most equate the term “social” with social media and online communities.

The most social among us are perceived to be those who maintain several social media accounts and have a large group of followers they interact with regularly. Has this sociological shift also had an impact on how we interact with our physical urban spaces? Do we even take notice of our environment while we’re walking around the city with our mobile devices?

Emily Badger (@emilymbadger), writing for Atlantic Cities, recently profiled a team of researchers who have found that the use of smart phones has weakened the degree of social interaction in our public gathering spaces.

I don’t believe the conclusion here is a sociological revelation by any means, since most of us have observed the trend personally. (Right now I’m recalling the last person I walked by at the grocery store who appeared to be having a heated conversation with their self, only to discover they were talking on their mobile phone using a hands-free headset.)

The article is summed up with a proposal that our physical public spaces may need to be redesigned to accommodate the “new” social, using the very same mobile technology in a socially-positive way. But in what ways can mobile technology increase physical interaction with each other and the urban environment?

Here are examples of online resources and activities that are already attempting to do just that:

  1. Meetup (www.meetup.com) is an online community with over 9.5 million members in 45,000 cities that makes it easy to find and sign up for events with others with similar interests and causes. “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”
  2. Foursquare (www.foursquare.com) allows users to use tools that help “keep up with friends, discover what’s nearby, save money and unlock deals.” What is significant about this tool is that the user is actually “checking-in” at a physical location, where other social media activities are not location-dependent.
  3. Geocaching is an activity that uses mobile devices, including smart phones, to participate in real-life explorations as individuals or in teams. According to Geochaching.com, “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.”
  4. Social Media Breakfast (www.socialmediabreakfast.com) is a regularly occurring breakfast program that promotes “feeding your belly and your brain”!  The organization, which currently has more than 40 cities around the world with affiliated groups, states two goals of the program: (1) Face-to-Face Networking and (2) Education on “social media best practices for business”. Locally, Social Media Breakfast Fort Wayne (SMBFW) meets the last Tuesday of each month. Check out details on Twitter (@SMBFW) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/smbftw ).

Are these efforts moving us in the right direction, and if so, what can we do to build on what’s already in progress? If not, what strategies will redirect us toward reclaiming physical interaction?

– Photo from Flickr by Svedek

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The novelty of walking to school

Students walking to St. John's School in Marshfield, Wis. Courtesy USDOT

I walked to school every day of my life, from kindergarten through high school. It was only a quarter mile to my elementary school, and it was less than a mile to the high school. And every street had a sidewalk.

But that was 30 years ago. Now, such a simple part of life seems to be a thing of the past:

In 2009 only 13 percent of K-8th Grade students were reported as walking or biking to school. That’s a huge shift from 40 years earlier when that number was 48 percent. In 1969, 89 percent of kids who lived within a mile of school walked or rode their bikes; in 2009 that figure was down to 35 percent.

That’s from a story on the U.S. Department of Transportation blog, “Indiana Schools Take Strides Toward Safe Routes to School.” Although those statistics are bleak, the USDOT congratulated Indiana for doing a good job of meeting what the Federal Highway Administration calls the 5 E’s:

  1. Engineering – Creating roadway improvements near schools that reduce speeds and potential conflicts between motor vehicles and walking students and establishing safer crossings, walkways, and bikeways.
  2. Education – Teaching children important bicycling and walking safety skills and launching driver safety campaigns near schools.
  3. Enforcement – Partnering with local law enforcement to ensure traffic laws are obeyed in school zones and initiating community enforcement such as crossing guard programs.
  4. Encouragement – Using events and activities to promote walking and bicycling.
  5. Evaluation – Monitoring and documenting outcomes and trends to gauge success.

The first point, of course, mirrors the Complete Streets movement.

But despite the accolades, it’s doubtful an Indiana child walks or bikes to school, especially here in Fort Wayne, where the Walk Score is 39 out of a possible 100. A consistent policy of building simple physical features such as sidewalks and crossable streets would make getting around on foot a lot more feasible.

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