The Merits of New Urbanism

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

The standards and principles of new urbanism are designed to make areas more livable, more vibrant, and more people-oriented, and to build community pride in the city and the work of its developers.

The people-oriented, traditional areas of the city share a number of desirable characteristics that provide us with many benefits. We should strive to preserve, celebrate, encourage and emulate how these areas are designed because of such benefits. For example, a traditionally designed city provides the following benefits:

Gives people without access to a car, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled, more safety and independence in their world.

Enhances urban livability, which reduces the desire to flee to the suburbs, which, in turn, reduces the pressure for costly sprawl and strip commercial development.

Substantially reduces government and household costs — especially because of the enormous savings in the building and maintaining of road infrastructure, and the purchase and maintenance of cars.

Reduces the need for travel.

Helps retain historic structures instead of replacing them with parking or large suburban retail “boxes””

Features streets designed to slow traffic. It increases travel choices and reduces the length and number of vehicle trips.

Makes neighborhoods more memorable and dignified.

Contains structures built for permanence, instead of structures designed, as too many contemporary structures are, for a short-term “throw-away” life.

Integrates income groups by mixing housing types and providing a public realm available to all incomes.

Makes walking feel more enjoyable.

Is not characterized as much by strip commercial visual blight.

Increases citizen access to culture.

Creates a good environment for smaller, locally-owned businesses to become established and to operate in.

Puts “eyes on the street” and promotes “citizen surveillance” of public places where citizens watch over their collective security, crime is reduced, as are public law enforcement costs.

Stabilizes, reinforces the identity of, and improves the value of nearby older neighborhoods.

Preserves and promotes community character.

Promotes neighborhood and community self-sufficiency and, therefore, sustainabilty.

Reduces per capita gasoline consumption and air pollution.

Coupled with regulations that are designed to promote and preserve its features, restores the traditional citizen hope and expectation for a better future with each new development in the city, and, in so doing, reduces the extreme polarization between developers and neighborhoods.

Provides affordable housing options.

Creates a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of belonging and restores civic pride and place-based loyalty.

Strikes a balance between the needs of the car and the needs of the pedestrian. It creates a pedestrian ambiance and interesting pedestrian features, and makes the pedestrian feel safe, convenienced, and comfortable.

Creates a good environment for smaller, locally-owned businesses to become established and to operate in.

Increases transit viability, primarily through density, access, traffic calming, community-serving facilities, compactness, mixed use and pedestrian amenities.

Currently, developers are often reviled and their developments feared. This is manifested in the contemporary epidemic of NIMBYs (not in my backyard), NIMTOOs (not in my term of office), BANANAs (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything), and NOPEs (not on planet earth). Largely, these attitudes have emerged because since WWII, developers and cities have sought to make cars instead of people happy.

Typically, American suburbs are characterized by this design. Suburban design features:

Large setbacks that are inconvenient for pedestrians and fail to define a comfortable public realm

Large parking lots in front of buildings

Large street blocks with no cross access or connecting streets

Buildings with their backs or sides turned toward the street. Instead of an entrance or windows, the pedestrian is confronted with blank walls, air compressors, dumpsters, and long walks to the building

Pedestrian-hostile features that are designed to promote car use, such as drive-throughs, single-use zoning, segregation of land uses, and “armoring” with fences and walls

To make Gainesville a safer, more livable place, and to increase citizen pride in its developments, the new urbanist standards are designed to primarily promote the health, safety, and welfare of pedestrians, while still accommodating the needs of the car. More specifically, the design is intended to make the pedestrian feel:

Safe and secure

Convenienced

Pleasant and comfortable

With enhanced safety, livability, civic pride, and visual appeal in these older parts of the city, the city will establish an important engine in job recruitment and a strengthened tax base. A downtown that adheres to these standards will be a city that provides an important incubator for new, entrepreneurial, locally-owned small businesses and entry-level job opportunities. A healthy downtown also protects the property values of surrounding residential areas.

Some Principles of New Urbanism

Build-To Line

Overly large setbacks are inconvenient and unpleasant for pedestrians. They are inconvenient because they can significantly increase walking distances from the public sidewalk. They are unpleasant because they prevent the pedestrian on the public sidewalk from enjoying the building details and the activity within the building. In addition, they prevent the building from contributing to an intimate, pleasant, comfortable street wall, which harms the sense of place and makes the pedestrian feel as if she or he is in “no man’s land.” Buildings pulled up to the street sidewalk have more of a human scale. The intent of a build-to line is to pull the building facade up to the street to abut the streetside sidewalk. By doing so, building facades along a block face will be aligned to form a street wall that frames the public realm, while retaining sufficient width for people to walk, and sufficient space to provide a formal landscape created by the shade of street trees. The street wall shapes the public realm to provide a sense of comfort and security for the public space.

Building Height of At Least Two Stories

“Low-slung” one-story buildings are more appropriate in low-density residential areas designed for motor vehicle travel. They reduce the density and intensity needed to make transit, walking, and bicycling viable, and typically are too low in profile to form a desirable, intimate, comfortable public realm with facing buildings across the street. They also reduce the opportunity to create mixed-use buildings containing, typically, both commercial and residential uses. Low-rise multi-story buildings two to five stories in height are an important component of the compact, walkable city. The building profile forms the desired street wall and the additional stories allow the establishment of the number of residents needed for a viable urban neighborhood.

Parking Located at the Rear or Side of Building Instead of in Front

Parking areas located in front of buildings are inconvenient and unpleasant for pedestrians. They are inconvenient because they significantly increase walking distances from the public sidewalk. They are unpleasant because they often make for hot expanses of areas to walk in, prevent the pedestrian on the public sidewalk from enjoying the building details and the activity within the building, and increase safety problems since pedestrians must dodge cars in the parking area. In addition, they prevent the building from contributing to an intimate, pleasant, comfortable street wall, which harms the sense of place and makes the pedestrian feel as if she or he is in “no man’s land.” Buildings pulled up to the street without intervening motor vehicle parking have more of a human scale.

Hidden Trash and Recycling Receptacles and Loading Docks

Trash and recycling receptacles and loading docks typically provide an unsightly appearance and an odor problem for pedestrians. In addition, improperly located and improperly screened receptacles and docks can cause noise problems for nearby land uses when the receptacles and packages are being loaded or unloaded. Therefore, they should be located as far from public sidewalks as possible and screened from view.

Sidewalks Sufficiently Wide and Aligned for Convenience

Sidewalks, when properly dimensioned and maintained, can provide the pedestrian with a pleasant, safe, and convenient place to walk. Sidewalks that are too narrow are inconvenient, especially in areas with large volumes of pedestrians, pedestrians walking side-by-side (which requires a minimum sidewalk width of five feet unobstructed), and people using wheelchairs. In addition, sidewalks that must wrap around large block faces are a serious impediment to pedestrian convenience.

Building Oriented to the Street, Instead of Turning Its Back to It

A successful commercial establishment is designed to provide convenience for customers by minimizing walking distances from public sidewalks and nearby buildings. Rear or side entrances, or entrances oriented toward a parking lot, make travel highly inconvenient for pedestrians and transit users. Such a design also cuts the building off from street life. In addition, a building with its main entrance directed away from the primary sidewalk and street “turns its back” to the public realm, reduces urban vibrancy, and is harmful to promoting street life. When a building is located at an intersection, the most convenient entrance is usually abutting the public sidewalks at the corner of the intersection. Often, the most convenient sidewalk is formally aligned diagonally and aligned straight to minimize walking distance.

Facade Treatment Creates Interest for Pedestrians

All building shall be designed to provide interest for pedestrians. Long expanses of blank walls tend to be boring and unattractive for the pedestrian. In addition, windows attract pedestrians, which act as a security system for the business. Buildings without such relief and interest tend to create a “massive scale”, and makes the public realm impersonal. Such an appearance is inconsistent with the “human-scaled” and pedestrian-oriented character of the a traditional area of a city, and inconsistent with a city intent to restore such character to the traditional city area.

Hidden Outdoor Mechanical Equipment

Outdoor mechanical equipment, such as heating or AC units, when improperly located on a site or improperly screened, can contribute to noise problems and create visual blight.

Formal Landscaping

In the traditional, pedestrian-oriented areas of a city, landscaping should be used both to soften the “hardness” of the urban area for the pedestrian, and make the pedestrian feel more comfortable by providing cooling, reducing glare and helping to form public spaces, “outdoor rooms,” and street corridor edges. Such formality of landscaping adds dignity to the traditional area of a city, instead of a chaotic one, thereby inspiring a sense of civic pride.

Properly Scaled Lighting

Lighting can often detract from the intimate, pleasant, romantic character a city seeks to promote in the traditional, pedestrian-oriented areas of a city. But lighting designed for cars tends to be not human-scaled. Lights on tall fixtures cause light pollution by casting light into areas not needed by pedestrians. In addition, the lights present a poor, bleached out atmosphere as the pedestrian views an area from afar, and hides the nighttime sky completely. A new urbanist, pedestrian-oriented street lighting design features shorter and more numerous light fixtures and structures.

Prohibited Auto-Oriented Uses

Certain uses are oriented toward or designed to attract motor vehicles, and therefore contribute to danger, visual blight, inconvenience, and lack of human scale for pedestrians. Therefore, such uses are not compatible with the a people-friendly downtown area.

Alleys

Alleys allow the developer to place garages, driveways, waste receptacles, and overhead utilities in a less conspicuous location away from the public street and therefore less likely to detract from the pedestrian ambiance of the neighborhood. Alleys also provide an additional location for emergency vehicles to gain access to a building, and a relatively safe place for children to play.

Front Porches

When they are set back a modest (“conversational”) distance from the sidewalk, porches allow persons to sit on their porch and interact and socialize with their neighbors. They therefore add safety (by putting “eyes on the street”) and friendliness to the street. As a result, porches contribute to an enjoyable walk by pedestrians in the neighborhood.

Narrow Streets

Narrow streets force cars and trucks to travel slowly through the neighborhood, which significantly contributes to neighborhood safety, low noise levels, low traffic volumes and, therefore neighborhood livability.

Mixed Housing Types

Mixed housing types provide the neighborhood with a mixed income environment, since the mixed types provide a range of housing affordability. Mixed housing types enable lower income workers to live within walking distance of their jobs, instead of creating traffic problems by being forced to commute by car to their jobs.

Transit Links

When a neighborhood contains — or is near — safe, pleasant, and convenient bus stops, a larger number of trips are made by bus, which reduces excessive neighborhood trips to and from the neighborhood by car. This provides more transportation choice, enhances neighborliness, and reduces household transportation costs (every car a household can shed saves the household the equivalent of the monthly home mortgage payment on a $51,000 house, at 10 percent interest).

On-Street Parking

Buffers pedestrians from vehicle travel. Narrows the street in order to slow traffic to a safer, more livable speed. Provides convenient parking locations for nearby businesses. Allows businesses and residences to reduce the amount of off-street, on-site parking, which reduces the “heat island” effect and enhances urban vibrancy by improving the public realm.

Mixed Use

Reduces trip distances to the point where walking, bicycling, and bus trips are much more feasible for a number of different types of trips. Adds to neighborhood and urban vibrancy by increasing the number of places people can meet — such as a pub, on the way to work or a civic event, a grocery store, a fitness center, etc. Provides children with more of an awareness of community land uses other than parks, residences, and schools.

Resessed Garages

Enhances the neighborhood walking environment for the pedestrian. Houses appear people-oriented and interesting to walk along, instead of sending a strong message that “a car lives here.”

Narrow, Smaller Lots

Provides a more compact, walkable arrangement of houses. Provides a more pleasing alignment of houses along the streetside sidewalk, which enhances civic pride in the neighborhood and makes the residential street seem more “cozy.” Blocks are reduced in size, which makes the neighborhood more walkable. Narrower lots increase the frequency of front doors along the street, which greatly enhances the vibrancy of the street. Houses appear to be associated in a neighborly way, instead of isolated and cocooned from the neighborhood. Smaller lots also make home ownership in such a subdivision more affordable. In addition, the higher, yet livable, density that smaller lots provide makes transit more viable.

Connected Streets

Makes walking, bicycling, and using the bus more feasible by significantly reducing trip distances and increasing the number of safe and pleasant routes for such travellers. Provides motorists and emergency service vehicles with more “real time” route choices. A route that is impeded or blocked can be avoided in favor of a clear route, which is not possible on a cul-de-sac. In combination with the fact that connected streets distribute vehicle trips more evenly, real time route choices on connected streets reduce congestion on collector or arterial roads. As a result of this distribution, there is little or no need for neighborhood-hostile collectors or arterials, which, because of the volume and speed of vehicle trips they carry, are unpleasant for residences to locate along.

Terminated Vistas

A concept in which a prominent building is placed at the “visual termination” of a street. Provides dignity and prominence to important civic buildings, such as post offices, libraries, city halls, churches, convention centers and performing arts centers. Sends the message that the building is an important place for the community. In addition, terminated vistas make walking more pleasant by giving the pedestrian a “goal” to walk toward. The walk therefore does not seem endless. It also provides an impressive view to strive to reach. Such vistas also make trips more memorable by helping to orient a person as to their location in the community.

Livable, higher densities

The conventional way in which we address land use conflicts is to put distance between conflicting activities, and minimize the number of dwelling units per acre. But this does little to encourage land users to reduce the damage they do to the environment. Also, by segregating uses, we increase the amount people have to travel by car, which itself reduces the quality of the urban and natural environment.

By contrast, the more compact, higher density “new urbanist” development reduces trip length; and makes bicycling, transit, and walking more viable. For these reasons, compact development generates about half as much vehicle travel as does sprawl development, making such a land use strategy one of the most effective in reducing auto dependence.

Minimum densities necessary for a viable bus system are approximately eight dwelling units per acre. Newman and Kenworthy indicate that only when densities exceed 7,000 to 8,000 persons per square mile (Gainesville’s density is currently 2,000 per square mile) do mixed land uses and shorter travel distances become predominant enough to significantly reduce auto dependence. These researchers note that a dramatic reduction in per capita gasoline consumption occurs when population density reaches 12 to 16 persons per acre. “Low density land use ensures almost total dependence on automobiles, enormous travel distances, no effective public transit, and little possibility of walking or [bi]cycling. Below five or six people per acre, a city almost ceases to exist, and requires enormous transportation energy to hold the scattered parts together.”

A recent study found that distance is the most widely cited reason for not walking more often, thereby showing the importance of compact development as a strategy to encourage walking. People living in high-density areas are much more likely to walk than those living in low-density suburbs, even when suburban trips are less than one mile (note that higher population densities seem to be more strongly correlated with higher walking rates than does a compact land use pattern). There also seems to be a correlation between the shorter commute distances associated with compact cities and higher bicycling rates. Compact, mixed-use development has been cited as much more likely than improved bicycle facilities, congestion fees, or fuel price increases to recruit motorists to bicycling.

Residential development that averages 14 dwelling units per acre requires half as much road mileage to serve vehicle trips than development at 3.5 dwelling units per acre. Another study found that for each doubling of residential density, vehicle miles traveled is reduced 30 percent. Thus, if the population of an area doubled due to infill development, vehicle miles traveled would probably increase by only 40 to 60 percent, rather than the 100 percent it would increase if the population increase occurred in dispersed suburbs.

A recent study has confirmed that the shift from car trips to transit and walking does not occur until certain job and housing densities are achieved. For work trips, the thresholds are 50 to 75 employees per gross acre, or 12 dwellings per net acre. For shopping trips, it is 75 employees per gross acre and 20 dwellings per acre.

One way to increase development densities is to remove land development policies that reduce development densities, such as minimum lot size zoning and minimum parking requirements.

Public service vehicles scaled small enough so that they do not dictate unsafe, wide streets

New urbanism encourages the use of public service and emergency vehicles (such as fire trucks) that are scaled to be compatible with neighborhoods. Increasingly, such vehicles are quite large, and their size often dictates rather wide streets and unsafe turning radii. Yet studies show that the dangers of such street design typically far outweigh the safety benefits that larger streets and turns will provide for emergency vehicles. In general, this is because the probability of traffic injury or death due to over-sized streets is much higher than the chance that injury or death would be averted because the emergency vehicle can shave a few seconds off of a trip. Therefore, smaller service vehicles can help a City keep average neighborhood vehicle speeds lower, make the streets safer and less noisy, make the neighborhood more walkable and, in general, more livable and sociable.

Streets and sidewalks straight, not curvilinear

Streets are more memorable and less disorienting when they are straight. They are more dignified, and can be terminated with a prominent vista. It is important that sidewalks be straight, since pedestrians have a strong desire to walk the distance that provides the minimum trip length. Curving sidewalks promote the creation of “cow paths,” as pedestrians take short cuts along their route. In general, curvilinear sidewalks are only appropriate when needed to avoid a large tree or other important physical feature, or in an area in which most pedestrians are walking strictly for optional recreation or exercise. This is generally not the case in an urban area, where almost all trips are utilitarian. Mostly, curving sidewalks are intended to improve the view of motorists driving along a road, and provide no important benefits for the pedestrian.

One-quarter mile walking distance

It is generally recognized that the convenient walking distance ranges up to one-quarter mile, or roughly a five- to ten minute walk. It is therefore important that for a neighborhood to be walkable, most homes should be within one-quarter mile of public parks, schools, civic buildings, retail, office, and various forms of culture. The one-quarter mile design yardstick also enhances the viability of transit.

Short, walkable block faces

In general, a neighborhood or commercial block face length should not exceed approximately 500 feet. Longer blocks tend to create inconvenient walking distances. When long blocks must be created, they should be shorted with cross-access walkways.

Ground-floor retail. Offices and residential above.

This form of mixed use enhances vibrancy and provides more affordable housing choices. It reduces the need for trips by car, since employees of the retail establishment can live above the shop. It is important that such “vertical mixing” of uses not place residential on the first floor, since it is disruptive for the residence when users of the office or retail must walk through the residence. It is also important that such mixed use include retail on the first floor so that more energy and interest is at the street level – -thereby benefiting pedestrians.

Eyes on the street. Citizen surveillance

Law enforcement agencies increasingly see the merits of citizen policing, in which citizens are able to watch out for their collective security. Such “eyes on the street” are promoted when buildings, windows, entrances and porches are near the street and sidewalk. Citizen surveillance is also promoted when the neighborhood or commercial areas are designed for regular, frequent pedestrian activity. Areas without pedestrian activity are areas where illegal, inappropriate, or unsafe behavior can occur more easily since there is no one to observe the deed and report it or intervene.

Diagonal usually the shortest walking distance

In general, the shortest walking distance is a diagonal route. Frequently, sidewalks are designed with right angle turns, which increases the walking distance and increases the likelihood of “cow path” shortcuts.

Centrally-located schools, parks, squares, civic w/in walking distance of most homes

When schools, parks, squares, and civic buildings are within easy walking distance of most residents, a sense of community and neighborliness is promoted, and vehicle trips are greatly reduced. If children are able to walk to school or a park, such areas can become social and recreational gathering places for students, because they are able to go to the school or return home on their own, as opposed to being required to leave when the bus leaves at the end of the class day.

Parks, squares and civic uses are more frequently used when residents have easy, non-vehicular access to them. When centrally located, they become the focal point of the neighborhood, and maximize the number of residences that are within walking distance.

Square street curbs

Square street curbs provide more safety for pedestrians, and provide a more attractive, urban appearance for the neighborhood.

Modest curb radius

A larger curb turning radius at an intersection or a parking area ingress and egress point allows vehicles to negotiate a turn rapidly, whereas a smaller radius forces a vehicle to slow down. Conventional traffic engineers often prefer a larger radius for vehicle convenience and curb protection, but such a radius makes life more inconvenient and dangerous for pedestrians. A larger radius also significantly increases the distance for crossing the street, which exposes the pedestrian to more danger from moving vehicles.

Note that large garbage trucks or delivery trucks or buses or fire trucks should not dictate the design of neighborhood curb radii. To do so is equivalent to obligating an architect to increase the size of the front door opening so that an overly large TV set can be brought into the house. No, the correct solution is to request that service and emergency vehicles be scaled for neighborhoods…

 

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Filed under Bicycling, New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Parking, Sprawl and Suburbia, Traffic Congestion, Visioning

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