Urban Planning Attacked by Idiocy

I read an article today on Treehugger about the anti-Agenda 21 people. Usually, I like to avoid such crazy talk, especially in an election year when the crazy is all around, but I feel compelled to address some things because it’s too ridiculous not to address.

No one is trying to take away your private property, or force you to give up your McMansion or house in the country for an urban mixed-use development. No one’s going to come into your home to round you up and put you on light rail trains and bicycles to transport you to the nearest city to toil in an urban garden and live close to your child’s school. Put down the Kool Aid, Captain Kooky; you’re getting your panties in a knot for nothing.

Bikes on the streets of Tokyo

Yet there are people who are convinced that this will happen. They’re all in a tizzy because the evil United Nations created the equally evil Agenda 21, a completely voluntary set of guidelines for sustainable development to improve the lives of people, particularly those who live in cities as much the world does. I’m not entirely sure what the anti-Agenda 21 zealots are smoking, but they need to get a refund from their dealer…or turn off the Faux News and maybe read something that isn’t from the John Birch bookshelf.

Mixed use development isn’t the enemy; neither are bike lanes, urban centers, light rail, high speed trains, pedestrian walkways or being in close proximity to work, school and your basic consumer needs. If you’re scared that your small town will turn into a ghost town, it’s not because of highway exits or propaganda to lure young folks and families away, it’s probably because there are no jobs. There are no jobs because your community is probably going through an economic shift to keep up with the times and citizens aren’t starting new businesses and/or established businesses aren’t interested in setting up shop. People go where the jobs are and if that means moving away from their hometowns, so be it. That’s been happening since the beginning of civilization. It’s nothing new and it’s certainly not a new Commie agenda.

Although the 5th amendment of the Constitution puts limits on eminent domain, the government can take your property and use it to expand a roadway, for example, so long as they adequately compensate your for it (e.g., give you fair market value for the land). They can’t take it away to build a mixed use development; however, they may do so to expand a light rail line or expand the roadway to add a new lane or a bike lane, basically anything that is for public use. This is also nothing new. Growing up in New Hampshire, people would constantly get all riled up about the Man trying to take away their property. Calm down, son. You can keep your weeds and dirt lawn, as well as your collection of cars on blocks and assorted lawn ornaments…until your road needs to be expanded, which if no one’s coming to your town anyway, really won’t be a problem.

While public comment is always welcome when new development or plans are on the table, it should at least take the form of informed opinion, not fear mongering. Blocking plans because you fear that someone will take away your SUV and house is irrational. As is threatening planners because some ignorant paranoid talking head, who has issues that a black man is president (clutch your pearls!), told you that all planners are part of some Communist U.N. conspiracy to take away all of your rights and make you wear utilitarian garments straight out of 1984. If you believe that, I have some magic beans to sell you real cheap—only $500,000 a bean. It’s the deal of the century. Did I mention they’re magic?

It’s true, trends in urban planning are moving towards walkable mixed-use communities with tree-lined streets, bike lanes and nearby schools, shopping and employment opportunities. I know it’s crazy, but it’s what people want, just look at the latest NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. Who wants to continue to commute 30 minutes each way five days a week to and from a home that they paid too much for during the boom, and are now underwater on, that’s located far from pretty much everything? Sure, there are some people who will say, “That’s my dream because it’s my property!” Good for them. For the rest of us, after a few years that luster will fade and you’ll be as fat , unhealthy and unhappy as the other commuters on the road. Perhaps some fresh air (fresh thanks in part to those ‘evil’ environmental laws enacted during the 1970s when rivers and the air were ablaze from reactions of toxic chemicals) would do you good.

LiveWork: The Eco-Development of the Future

According to the latest McGraw Hill Report, green home construction is on the upswing—it’s projected to receive a five-fold boost by 2016. However, there is debate as to how green these homes are. Surely, it’s more sustainable to buy an existing home and add green features to it (after recycling or reusing the items and materials replaced, of course). Additionally, many home developers are building these so-called sustainable homes and neighborhoods in suburban areas, much to the ire of many environmentalists—how green can it be if the owner still has to drive their vehicle everywhere?

Just when I was feeling a bit bummed about sustainable home building, I read this article in Fast Company, which profiles the LiveWork project, a sustainable housing plan out of Athens, Georgia that is the brainchild of two architectural students, Eric Laine and Suzanne Steelman. Taking into account the environment, economics and social factors, LiveWork consists of three single-family units that feature living spaces above commercial space. The family that lives on the second floor can choose to open their own business, lease the space to another business or let the Homeowner Association lease it to another business. With unemployment still high and many people foregoing the job hunt in favor of starting their own businesses, this is the ideal option. Additionally, since the business is so close to home, families with children may be able to save on childcare expenses as well as have the opportunity to use the time they would have spend commuting (an average of 30 minutes each way) with their kids instead.

LiveWork is intended to encourage sustainable living. The net-zero design is made of steel, which can be recycled, reclaimed or disassembled and used in another project. Additionally, it’s insulated with sheep’s wool, a material that features an R-value of a whopping 34.5! That’s a super tightly insulated home. Water is collected on the roof and stored underground for non-potable use, and a green screen encourages passive solar. Energy is derived from 95 photovoltaic panels, and is shared by all residents as well as sold back to the grid. Since the building is occupied, either by residents or businesses, 24-hours a day, energy is more efficiently used.

This is a great idea that really plays off traditional planning models. When the majority of people lived in cities, it wasn’t unusual for people to live above businesses, specifically their business. It makes sense and is a far easier commute than having to trudge along in traffic with thousands of other disgruntled and tired commuters who are sucking down coffee, McMuffins and Powerbars. I think as more people, especially the younger generation (who are essentially economically screwed, but also overflowing with confidence, bless their little hearts), reclaiming urban areas and looking to escape the monotony of the cubicle farm, the LiveWork concept will become a desirable solution and means of maintaining a sustainable economic and environmental existence without having to sacrifice relationships.

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.

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