Community Leaders and Agencies Band Together to Revitalize Downtowns

Many of America’s cities have fallen into disrepair. While it may be easy to blame the recession for the rise in empty storefronts, the truth is that, in many areas, this decline began decades ago. As people moved to their cul-de-sacs in the suburbs, a shopping trip downtown has become a rare occurrence.

However, planners and business owners have been working together to turn this around, collaborating on developments to revitalize our downtowns. In addition to attracting a variety of businesses to populate empty storefronts, they are working to make it easier to get around through an increase in bike lanes and readying the streets for more pedestrian traffic.

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In the city of Oakland, California—more specifically historic Old Oakland—a local business owner, Alfonso Dominguez and an urban planner and artist, Sarah Filly, have created Popuphood, an innovative project designed to entice businesses into the once vibrant downtown. Funded by a $30,000 grant from the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, Popuphood is giving interested retail shops six months of free rent.  The businesses can stay past the six months. In the meantime, the neighborhood gets a boost to the local economy, businesses become exposed to a new clientele and residents can renew their sense of pride in their thriving neighborhood.

While the concept isn’t new, an essential ingredient to success is having a business and residential community willing to take the risk and make a commitment to revamping the neighborhood. To increase the chances of locals patronizing the businesses, it helps if the shops and restaurants that move into the storefronts are locally based, especially if there’s already a strong sense of local pride in the area.

As the economy recovers, now is the time for local businesses, neighborhood leaders and redevelopment organizations to work together to foster entrepreneurship to revitalize the ailing downtown neighborhoods of our cities. I’m anxious to see the progress of the Popuphood in Oakland—let’s hope it thrives and serves as an example for other downtowns across the country.

Three Advantages of an American Bicycle Culture

Long Beach, California is getting attention in planning circles due to its commitment to creating bike-friendly districts within the community. Certainly it helps that the mayor, Bob Foster, is a cyclist himself. Under his watch, the city has revamped its image and put in bike trails, new bike racks, protected bike lanes and now bike-friendly shopping districts. The city has reached out to local businesses to demonstrate how attracting more bike traffic can add to their bottom line. Bike racks boost visibility and draw customers to the stores. As someone who cycles to most places, it’s really nice to see bike racks outside of shops instead of having to lock my ride to the nearest tree or fence.

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Cities such as Minneapolis, Portland and Long Beach are demonstrating that bikes belong in our communities. The advantages of a bike-friendly community:

  1. A healthier populace. America is fat. The majority of Americans are big fat fatties, shoving fast food down their gobs as they drive their giant SUVs around town and blame having increasingly sedentary lives on their jobs and other obligations. By getting out and making short-distance trips by bicycle, people will find that they have more energy as they burn calories and get things done.
  2. Less traffic congestion. More bikes on the road mean fewer vehicles, which in turn translates to less traffic congestion for those who have to drive.
  3. Vibrant communities. The easiest way to get to know your local community is to get out of your vehicle. You can’t meet the people on your street if you’re stuck sitting between four walls. On your bicycle or on foot, you can greet your neighbors, which leads to a safer neighborhood.

There’s a fourth, more obvious advantage, which is cleaner air. The fewer the vehicles that are on the road, the less pollution that fills the air, leading to healthier lungs and less incidence of asthma and other lung ailments.

While we’re not quite at the level of creating a bicycle superhighway like Sweden, our cities can get to the point where cycling is encouraged in the community.

Denmark’s Largest Private Development Sets Mark for Green Building

This is probably the raddest project on the planet and I’m not just saying that because it incorporates cycling. 8 House in Copenhagen, Denmark is a mixed-use building that incorporates office, retail and residential space within a city block.

8 House

Designed by BIG-Bjarke Ingles Group, the 61,000 square meter, bow-shaped building was completed in 2010 and features 476 apartments.

 

 

 

 

People living in the residential apartments enjoy views from the top floors while office and retail space makes up the bottom layers. Since the building is tiered, natural light is able to flood the courtyard. Public space is also a highlight of the building, with plenty of trails and canals and comprising nearly 500 square meters of the site. The best part is the bike path that extends from the bottom floor to the 10th floor and spans around the building.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The building also features green roofs that help maintain a steady temperature and improve its eco-footprint. Others were also impressed by the building—it won an AIA Institute Honor Award for Architecture.

View from the Top

Has the Commute Become the New Housing Deal Breaker?

The latest National Association of Realtors® 2011 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers found that buyers are taking their commute to work into account when purchasing a home. Reaffirmed by a report from the Urban Land Institute, the shift to a shorter commute will change the way our communities are built. For many, particularly Millennials, the thought of travelling an average of 45 minutes per day to and from work by car is not an attractive one. [I’ve had two jobs where my commute was 40 minutes each way and it was horrible—in the second job, it wasn’t unusual for my commute home to be an hour and a half on a Friday, which left me in frustrated tears spewing F-bombs at my fellow commuters.] Whether it’s for the environment or for their sanity, people are choosing homes closer to work or public transit, if they must commute a distance.

Cars are supposed to equal freedom, right? How many of us feel free when we’re trapped in our vehicles during rush hour traffic, watching the guy in the Volvo next to us clip his nasal hair in the rear view mirror and the mom in the SUV on the other side of us yelling at her children in the backseat? Millennials and other working professionals are shunning this fate, instead choosing to live in smaller spaces that afford them a better lifestyle and allow them the time to pursue their hobbies. Better still, many professionals who work for technologically progressive companies are working from home—the easiest commute of all.

The McMansion: A big house in suburbia is no longer the American Dream for Millennials

Time will tell if this trend is a flash-in-the-pan or one that’ll last. Who knows—when the economy recovers or energy prices decrease, people may go back to their McMansions in bedroom communities 40 miles away from their jobs. Guess we’ll have to see.

What We Can Learn from a Small German Village

To all the doubters who say that green technologies and ideas don’t create jobs, take a look at Feldheim, Germany, a rural village completely powered by renewable energy. The small village of 145 people has no unemployment; many of the residents work in the renewable sector, in the biogas plant or the wind and solar parks. It’s easy to dismiss this little tid-bit as an anomaly of a small town, but it’s hard to deny that the growth in the renewable energy sector translates to more jobs within this sector.

 

From beer to sustainable farming

Elsewhere in Germany, Frisch vom Dach, or Fresh from the Roof, is soliciting investors for an innovative aquaponic farm project for the roof of the Old Malthouse in Berlin. Beer and sustainable farming—I think I’m in love. Fish will live in the vats that once housed dry barley, while plants will grow in a greenhouse on the roof. While fish waste fertilizes the growing plants, the plants purify the water. In addition to growing fresh produce, fish will also grow and thrive. The harvest is intended for sale to a shop on-site as well as to local retailers. The first harvest is set for 2013.

 

Germany is making good on its promise to generate at least one-third of its power from wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy by 2020, and generate up to 80% of its power from these sources by 2050. In exchange for essentially funding R&D on renewable energy, homeowners that have installed solar panels and the like can sell the power they generate back to the grid. Because the country sees renewable energy and green technology as the future, they’re willing to set the bar for green investment, despite critics.

 

The U.S. should take a page from the Germans—we’re reaching a point where we have to either shit or get off the pot, and basically get onboard with the growth of the future renewable sector as that’s where the jobs are and will be in the future. Adopting green building and technology is not a partisan issue—it’s a logical solution for our changing times.

Finally, A Town for Bikers!

I’m a very lucky bike commuter—my little California beach town is full of 3-foot bike lanes on all of the major roads. The only hairy part of my commute is merging with traffic when the bike lane ends before the freeway on-ramp. Most bike commuters aren’t so lucky and have to deal with narrow streets, rude drivers and random idiocy.

 

Artist rendering of Bicycle City

However, a town in South Carolina is looking to change things and become a bike-only community (although cars are allowed to park on the outskirts of town). Bicycle City LLC has selected Gaston, South Carolina as the first car-free community. In addition to encouraging cycling and walking, all homes will be build in compliance with LEED standards and rely on clean energy. The community is located near the Three Rivers Greenway, an existing bike trail, and is close to Columbia, an established bicycle-friendly city. Situated between the mountains and the ocean, this Bicycle City boasts a myriad of amenities to its future residents.

 

Artist rendering of Bicycle City

Green features:

  • Multi-surface trails for walking, hiking and biking (oh my!)
  • Green homes
  • Recreational opportunities around the local lake
  • Access to a local organic market

 

Currently, only trail work is underway, but interested parties can reserve a home site in the community.

A Hobbit House in Wales

 

Throw in a hobbit house, like the sustainable one built in Wales, and consider me sold. Built by Simon Dale, the house was built with the environment in mind, touting straw bales for insulation, reclaimed and locally-sourced materials, natural ventilation, solar panels, gravity-fed water, compost toilet and a rainwater catchment system. Plus it took 1000-1500 man hours and £3,000 (about US$4,650). According to his website, Dale built the home for his family in order to live the life they wanted to lead, without the burdens of a mortgage payment or rent. He also did it to meet the challenges of sustainable land use issues and energy consumption. Armed with tools, motivation and a little help from his friends, he completed the home in four months. Since this project was a success, he’s in the process of building a home within an eco-village in Wales that is part of the Lammas Project.

Rendering of the Hobbit House

 

Rendering of Hobbit House

Yoyogi Village: Tokyo’s Latest Renewal Project Combines Eco-Features with Social Investment

Japan has had a rough 2011. Tourism is down from previous years, as visitors from abroad have been hesitant to travel to due to March’s disaster. However, as someone who visited in May—just 2 months after the earthquake and nuclear meltdown—I can say with certainty that Japan is perfectly safe and a can’t-miss destination.

Those with an eye for design and an interest in urban planning will find Tokyo a fascinating place. The city and surrounding areas epitomize mixed-use planning, and not because it’s the latest trend in smart cities. While American planners debate and try to convince the powers that be that mixed-use planning is the way to go, the Japanese have done it. The reason is simple—space is at a premium. Infill development is the norm; it’s common to see a factory next to an apartment complex next to a Joyful Honda store.

One of the many green projects that opened this year is the Yoyogi Village in Tokyo, which has been given a green makeover to draw visitors and tourists from abroad. The brainchild of Takeshi Kobayashi, the renewal is designed to highlight elements of simplicity and balance and features eco-friendly retail, organic restaurants and eateries, a music bar, art gallery and a mind and body center.

Proceeds from the Village will be reinvested in the AP Bank, a non-profit established by Kobayashi (among others) that provides loans for global environmental projects. “I don’t want this project to be a monster initiative,” Kobayashi told the Japan Times. “But to create jobs for people committed to the future of [ecological] circulation is at the core of sustainability, and we can provide an engine for them.” Beneficiary projects include organic farms that will, in turn, supply produce to serve in the restaurants of the village.

The eco-features of Yoyogi Village are great, but what I love is that the money generated will help keep the businesses within the village viable. The food comes from farms that have received seed money from the AP Bank, just as the cotton grown for clothing sold in the shops will come from small businesses funded by the Bank. This transparency allows consumers to learn more about the goods they buy.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller