Archive | August, 2014

Walkable City: How Dowtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

20 Aug

Jeff Speck

North Point Press

PROLOGUE

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed. An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary. What characterizes the discussion on cities these days is not a wrongheadedness or a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.

We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities— after forgetting for four— yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Certain large cities, yes. If you make your home in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or in a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track. But these locations are the exceptions. In the small and midsized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse. This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. The planners were so wrong for so many years that now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.

But this book is not about the planning profession, nor is it an argument for more planning per se. Instead, it is an attempt to simply delineate what is wrong with most American cities and how to fix it. This book is not about why cities work or how cities work, but about what works in cities. And what works best in the city is walkability.

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality. After several decades spent redesigning pieces of cities, trying to make them more livable and more successful, I have watched my focus narrow to this topic as the one issue that seems to both influence and embody most of the others. Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow.

This discussion is necessary because, since mid century, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers— worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking— have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at. Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscape with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. As growing numbers of Americans opt for more urban lifestyles, they are often met with city centers that don’t welcome their return. As a result, a small number of forward-thinking cities are gobbling up the lion’s share of post-teen suburbanites and empty nesters with the wherewithal to live wherever they want, while most midsized American cities go hungry.

How can Providence, Grand Rapids, and Tacoma compete with Boston, Chicago, and Portland? Or, more realistically, how can these typical cities provide their citizens a quality of life that makes them want to stay? While there are many answers to that question, perhaps none has been so thoroughly neglected as design, and how a comprehensive collection of simple design fixes can reverse decades of counterproductive policies and practices and usher in a new era of street life in America.

These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit, and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people. Most are not expensive— some require little more than yellow paint. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.

Even New York and San Francisco still get some things wrong, but they will continue to poach the country’s best and brightest unless our other, more normal cities can learn from their successes while avoiding their mistakes. We planners are counting on these typical places, because America will be finally ushered into “the urban century” not by its few exceptions, but by a collective movement among its everyday cities to do once again what cities do best, which is to bring people together— on foot.

 

Jeff Speck, coauthor of the landmark bestseller Suburban Nation, is a city planner who advocates for smart growth and sustainable design. As the former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, he oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where he worked with dozens of American mayors on their most pressing city planning challenges. He leads a design practice based in Washington, D.C. Jeff Speck will be speaking at DCI’s annual conference on Thursday, September 11th, at 10:25am.

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Branding Your Community

19 Aug

Why is it when someone says Paris, we think of fashion, fancy champagne and fine dining? Or when we hear Las Vegas we think of late nights, gambling, adult entertainment, and drinking? And Portland, Oregon brings to mind a slightly weird, environmentally friendly, and politically correct city. While one might say that these cities are famous, the real answer is that these wonderful cities have figured out branding and how that relates to their geography, how they advertise, who to target, and what they stand for. For these tourist destinations their image, or brand, brings visitors, residents, and resources. One should not think that building a brand is just for large, well-funded locales, areas small and large can leverage the principles of branding to attract visitors, residents, and resources to their town.

So, what is a brand, and how can towns and cities in Colorado leverage the principles of branding to advance their own objectives, bring in revenues, and build a community? At its core, branding means personality or image, it is what the visitor, the resident, or the passerby thinks about when they hear the name of a town. Researchers Anderson and Carpenter (2005) offered the view that externally, a brand conveys a message or image to consumers and internally, a brand directs activities and focus.

Now one might ask, how does a town or city establish a brand image? There are both internal and external factors that influence a brand and its image. Internally, location history, vision of founding fathers, concerns of the citizens, ideology of the locals, unique features, and resident talents can all help build a community’s brand and personality. Externally, the image of other towns and cities, cultural forces, market trends, and tourist interests can influence brand elements and strategy towns and cities take when developing their brand image. Many researchers believe that the consumer desire is the central driver of creating a strong area brand image, but brands must also understand what images and personalities are already owned by other communities. For example, every town cannot be the food destination, every community cannot be the hikers dream, and every city cannot be the cowboy history center. In addition to knowing what the tourist or residents want, communities need to know what others are doing to create a unique brand.

Building a community’s brand image is only half of the journey; once a brand image is established, cities and towns need to be sure that the brand image is considered in every community action, when creating internal and external promotions, as events are planned, and when new ventures are implemented by a locale. For example, marketing lore holds that Las Vegas toyed with trying to attract families to the city of sin. Advertising was created to speak to families, amusement parks built, and promotional programs created to entice families to visit. After the programs ran for a short time, the image of Las Vegas was starting to become muddled, was the gambling capitol of the United States for adults who wanted to play, or families looking for a vacation? The mixed message confused tourists and the number of visitors to Vegas fell. The smart folks who are responsible for bringing tourists to Las Vegas quickly figured out that they could not be everything to everyone, they needed to center on one image, promote to one target, and ensure their brand was aligned. Most of us now think of Las Vegas as an adult-only playground and as the ads say, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Creating a community’s brand image and personality is not easy, but the creation must involve everyone, should consider the visitor, and take into account what others are doing. Done right a community’s strong brand image can help it achieve its internal and external goals and objectives.

 

Beth Ann Parish Ed.D. is an expert on branding and promotion and believes that a strong brand image should drive everything a community does. Dr. Parish teaches at Regis University and serves as Executive Director for the Boulder Chorale, a 49-year-old group of singers committed to enriching and inspiring the community through music. Beth Parish will be speaking at DCI’s annual conference on Thursday, September 11th.

 

Anderson, J. C., & Carpenter, G. S. (2005). Brand strategy for business markets. In A. Tybout & T. Calkins (Eds.), Kellogg on Branding (pp. 169-185). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Walkable City: How Dowtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

19 Aug

Jeff Speck

North Point Press

PROLOGUE

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed. An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary. What characterizes the discussion on cities these days is not a wrongheadedness or a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.

We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities— after forgetting for four— yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Certain large cities, yes. If you make your home in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or in a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track. But these locations are the exceptions. In the small and midsized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse. This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. The planners were so wrong for so many years that now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.

But this book is not about the planning profession, nor is it an argument for more planning per se. Instead, it is an attempt to simply delineate what is wrong with most American cities and how to fix it. This book is not about why cities work or how cities work, but about what works in cities. And what works best in the city is walkability.

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality. After several decades spent redesigning pieces of cities, trying to make them more livable and more successful, I have watched my focus narrow to this topic as the one issue that seems to both influence and embody most of the others. Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow.

This discussion is necessary because, since mid century, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers— worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking— have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at. Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscape with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. As growing numbers of Americans opt for more urban lifestyles, they are often met with city centers that don’t welcome their return. As a result, a small number of forward-thinking cities are gobbling up the lion’s share of post-teen suburbanites and empty nesters with the wherewithal to live wherever they want, while most midsized American cities go hungry.

How can Providence, Grand Rapids, and Tacoma compete with Boston, Chicago, and Portland? Or, more realistically, how can these typical cities provide their citizens a quality of life that makes them want to stay? While there are many answers to that question, perhaps none has been so thoroughly neglected as design, and how a comprehensive collection of simple design fixes can reverse decades of counterproductive policies and practices and usher in a new era of street life in America.

These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit, and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people. Most are not expensive— some require little more than yellow paint. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.

Even New York and San Francisco still get some things wrong, but they will continue to poach the country’s best and brightest unless our other, more normal cities can learn from their successes while avoiding their mistakes. We planners are counting on these typical places, because America will be finally ushered into “the urban century” not by its few exceptions, but by a collective movement among its everyday cities to do once again what cities do best, which is to bring people together— on foot.

Jeff Speck, coauthor of the landmark bestseller Suburban Nation, is a city planner who advocates for smart growth and sustainable design. As the former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, he oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where he worked with dozens of American mayors on their most pressing city planning challenges. He leads a design practice based in Washington, D.C. Jeff Speck will be speaking at DCI’s annual conference on Thursday, September 11th.

Measuring Motivation: Is There Proof Greener Spaces Get People Moving?

13 Aug

Previously published in Health Elevations

 

A skyscraper with an oasis rooftop meadow sounds like a wonderful place. But does it make any difference in the health and happiness of the people who work there?

A public housing project with a shady walk to a community vegetable garden is much more inviting to most people than an asphalt playground a stoop overlooking hard-packed dirt. But does the green space really get people outside and moving around?

It might be a logical assumption that wide, well-kept sidewalks and guarded road crossings would lead more children to walk to their local school, and begin to make a dent in childhood obesity rates. But does the neighborhood truly change its behavior, or is it just wishful planning?

As the healthy places and built-environment movements grow more popular, the desire to measure the impacts grows apace.

Angela Loder, a Denver researcher on green space and the urban environment, collects examples of what’s been observed so far, and points to the most promising areas for study in the near future. Results are imperfect, her short summary goes, but the challenges are intriguing.

“We haven’t had enough time yet. It’s a very broad subject, and we’re still understanding the broad impacts of many factors on human health,” said Loder. “We now have ‘green buildings’ touted as health-promoting . . . so there’s a lot of desire to quantify that.”

One stat Loder uses to prick up the ears of architects, developers and real estate planners is this: $745. That’s purportedly the annual direct cost of an unhealthy work environment on employee health, in the form of illnesses from headaches to sore throats and stress that lead to lost time, doctor visits and rising insurance premiums.

While she is the first to acknowledge the need for wide-ranging, well-designed studies quantifying built environment and human health, Loder mentions a few reports that point in intriguing directions:

  •  A 1980s study of gall bladder patients on inpatient stays in hospitals compared those randomly assigned to different rooms. Those enjoying windows letting in natural light and a pleasant view stayed 8 days in the hospital and reduced their need for pain medication; with similar medical complications, those without a view or natural light stayed 9 days. Multiply that one day by thousands of patients, and savings could be enormous.
  • One of the most intriguing office space studies was conducted by the U.S. General Services Administration using volunteers from its extensive Lakewood Federal Center offices. The volunteers agreed to periodic biometric scans using heart rate monitors and saliva tests for the cortisol indicated stress. In a major complex renovated over 17 months, researchers could study effects of widely varied office space.
  • The study in the European Society of Cardiology found workers in older office space with poor lighting, bad ventilation and no views had less-healthy heart rates and higher stress levels than those enjoying better space. The study claimed a “clear association between overall workplace physical environment and stress response.”
  • Loder’s own studies of “green roof” office spaces in Toronto and Chicago showed varied reactions to wilder, meadow-style roof plantings, and more sedate but less engaging sedum roofs with short grass and subdued succulent plantings. Workers’ initial reactions to the “prairie” style may be less positive – a “go mow that” reaction, Loder describes it – but smart presentation and education programs about the need for wilder green spaces can change that reaction, she found. People can learn to appreciate things if they learn they were done for a reason, and response to designed spaces is not limited to an innate, “gut” reaction, Loder said.

The lingering question at the end of Loder’s talks is, “So why not do this? Is there any good reason not to try?” Even if the designed environment can’t solve significant employee health problems, you still wind up with a thoughtfully planned building with more inviting spaces and the winning message that the employer has tried hard.

“The drawback of doing it is that it costs more money,” Loder said, bringing listeners back to bricks-and-mortar reality. “For those interested in building, you have to sell them on the idea that it’s worth it.” Will the better design fetch a higher rent? Will tenants flock faster and stay longer? Will cities or other government offset the costs with incentives?

And, Loder added, many developers aren’t willing to confront those cost questions “without serious research” to back them up.

Michael Booth, Health Elevations, Summer 2014

Michael Booth is the Editor in Chief of Health Elevations.

Health Elevations seeks to further the goals of the Colorado Health Foundation by highlighting problems that can be solved, illuminating the people who are making progress in solving them and provoking a new way of looking at complex health issues. The journal will report on and synthesize a variety of sources to provide information that can further the work of policymakers, grantees, providers and the engaged public in advancing better health care, health coverage and healthier living. Useful information presented in a memorable way is indispensable to the complex field of health policy.