Health, Housing, and Equity

Written by Phil Schaeffing, Planner/Urban Designer

These three themes have stuck with me since attending the 2013 Massachusetts Smart Growth Conference at ABX (formerly Build Boston). Measuring and communicating potential health outcomes when considering policy and design options plays a pivotal role in improving positive changes and lessening negative impacts. Addressing the shortage of suitable housing affordable to middle-income families, especially in desirable urban areas, will prevent this critical problem from undermining economic growth and urban diversity. And achieving greater intergenerational and racial equity in an increasingly diverse country is one of society’s most pressing challenges, because the degree to which we succeed will profoundly influence the future health of the national economy and of individual communities.

I’d like to share three tools and ideas from the conference to help planners, urban designers, and the general public think about these complex issues.

Transit-Oriented Development Health Impact Assessment (TOD HIA): Boston’s Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund conducted this HIA to explore the relationship between TOD and health. The analysis used three TOD projects in the Roxbury and Mission Hill neighborhoods as case studies to evaluate potential health impacts in 12 areas ranging from active transportation and healthy food access to social cohesion and gentrification. The direction (positive or negative change), likelihood, and magnitude of the impact was determined in order to promote the benefits of TOD and identify any potentially negative outcomes to address.  The study results ( provide a methodology for other HIAs and useful information for TOD advocates and designers to integrate into their work.

HUD-DOT Location Affordability Index (LAI): This new map-based, online tool ( allows users to see how combining housing and transportation costs affects different types of households in a given. One can compare a variety of household types, including a typical regional household or households comprising a single professional, a low-income family, or an elderly couple. As the recent recession demonstrated, many middle-income households that found seemingly affordable housing farther away from cities (the “drive until you qualify” model) faced hidden but staggering transportation costs getting to jobs and other daily destinations. This tool acts as a helpful complement to the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index (, which allows side-by-side comparisons of a variety of variables.

Equity: Jigsaw puzzles and chess. Dr. Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern asked whether we think about complex problems like equity as a chess game or a jigsaw puzzle. A chess game, he explained, is meant to be won. It has black and white pieces, and some pieces are better than others. A jigsaw puzzle, however, is meant to be completed. Each piece is unique and multicolored, and all are important because if you’re missing just one at the end, you’re not finished. Equity, he argued, must be considered as a complicated jigsaw puzzle that requires patience, perseverance, and hopefulness that the difficult can be achieved.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Conference was a thought-provoking day that focused on the need for the planning profession and society to figure out how to provide better public health outcomes, a full spectrum of housing for all incomes, and greater equity in an increasingly diverse population. These tools and ideas are just a few of the many presented during the conference. For more information, this presentation is my summary of the key takeaways from the sessions I attended. Full presentations and videos from the conference are available at

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At TEDxNYIT: Meta Resiliency “the resiliency of resiliency,” David Dixon describes Resilience as City Building

On October 10 David Dixon, FAIA, spoke on “Resilience as City Building,” part of a TEDx event organized by the New York Institute of Technology. The day-long event examined “Meta Resiliency: The Resiliency of Resiliency” and took place in NYC just before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.

The dialogue focused on how rebuilding damaged cities could make them less susceptible to catastrophes like Sandy and better able to recover quickly when such disasters do strike. David joined 14 other experts who addressed one of four general themes: Latent Resiliency, Visceral Resiliency, Pedagogy and Practice, and Paradigm Shifting.

David opened the session on Paradigm Shifting by asking listeners how cities would respond to future disasters if cities don’t focus more consistently on resilience. In a time of broad fiscal constraints, the U.S. will have no choice but to spend vast sums of money protecting its cities against the side effects of climate change—rising sea levels, increases in weather extremes, imbalances in water supply. Cities will need to find a way to merge their urban design and environmental agendas to maximize the effects of these huge investments in resilience infrastructure. Planning for these investments should (and can) take livability and social equity into account in a kind of fiscal multitasking. The Dutch, whom David cited throughout his presentation as exemplars of successful resilience, started blending their resilience and urban design agendas just after World War II. A half century later, their inspiring model shows that climate-change adaptation doesn’t have to be a grim process if we have the smarts to incorporate it into all facets of city planning—and bring all facts of city planning to bear on disaster relief and resilience planning.

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David Dixon, FAIA at TEDxNYIT: Meta Resiliency October 10, 2013

On October 10, 2013, just prior to the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the worlds leading thinkers, doers and visionaries will gather at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway for the TEDxNYIT event: Meta Resiliency “the resiliency of resiliency”. David Dixon, FAIA, Goody Clancy’s principal-in-charge of Planning and Urban Design, will join a panel of speakers to discuss the topic of “Paradigm Shifting.”

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Teaching Students in San Antonio about Urban Planning and Neighborhood Revitalization

As part of a Choice Neighborhoods Planning effort with the San Antonio Housing Authority, Goody Clancy traveled to the Eastside neighborhood in San Antonio to run a 2-day workshop with a group of students aged 7 to 13 to teach them about neighborhood planning. The purpose of the workshop was to engage the students in core planning exercises and to make a final presentation on their work as junior urban planners.

Prior to making the journey down to San Antonio, Goody Clancy team members developed a number of educational tools for the workshops. Wanting the process to mimic that of a real neighborhood planning process and design charrette, we structured a curriculum that included everything from annotating maps to designing streetscapes and site drawings. In addition to lesson plans, Goody Clancy designed facades for classrooms as part of the school’s participation in the MicroSociety program. This provided the opportunity to hire young adults from a local YouthBuildUSA branch to actually construct them!

Day 1: We were not surprised to find that a majority of the children attending the workshop had not previously heard of urban planning, but we learned quickly that they possessed a strong sense of and vision for their community despite having different methods for articulating those than an adult might have. The day began with a brief introduction to urban planning, which utilized pictures more than words to illustrate planning concepts to the students including urban vs. rural environments, land use, urban design, and public engagement. We then moved from a macro scale to a micro scale by connecting high level concepts to existing conditions in the Eastside neighborhood. Similar to a regular neighborhood planning process, we needed to develop a branded identity for the initiative so we had the students brainstorm and design logos, which they each felt represented their neighborhood. Our plan was to take all of their ideas and compile them into one official logo to be presented to them on Day 2 (unveiled below).

The first step of the actual planning process was for the students to do an inventory of their existing neighborhood and draw a site map of what they would like to see in the neighborhood. Using the poster-sized ortho maps, we asked the students to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood from an aerial point of view, and using tracing paper, had them draw in features and uses that they believed would strengthen the community.

As the day progressed, we found that they were grasping fairly complex planning concepts much more quickly when they were able to draw and sketch than when we would just describe concepts to them, and so we found ourselves adjusting our lesson plans and activities constantly! Lessons that were designed to be structured as question and answer sessions often turned into brainstorming using tracing paper and maps or pictures. Very similar, in fact, to most planning excercises.

We also engaged the students in a visioning process where they were asked to write vision statements. They really excelled here, envisioning a neighborhood that was “fun, peaceful, civilized, safe, clean, has lots of restaurants and shopping, and meets peoples’ needs.” We compiled this into a unified vision that the students voted unanimously on:

Our neighborhood will be exciting, safe and clean. Everything will be close by and convenient with lots of restaurants and shopping. It will be a peaceful community that meets the needs of its people. Most important, it will be fun!

Day 2: As facilitators, some of the most rewarding and exciting moments occurred when the students could see the results of their work in real time. We only had two days, so we created project deliverables with them as we went along. At the beginning of the second day we unveiled the project’s logo, which incorporated elements of each child’s logo from Day 1. The students grew increasingly excited as they recognized their work in the compiled logo, which helped to underscore the collaboration that went into the process. We also now had a logo to incorporate into the final presentation!

Whereas Day 1 had consisted of conceptual work – learning about the urban planning process, identifying needs for the neighborhood, and establishing a vision – Day 2 was about strategy and designing spaces in the neighborhood. We outlined a number of strategies for improving the neighborhood – develop vacant land, reduce crime, make the neighborhood healthier, ensure quality housing for everyone – and asked the students to come up with ideas for how to implement these by drawing on the ortho maps. The students identified developable land on the maps and suggested uses to improve the neighborhood including green spaces and infill housing.

We also taught the students about urban design – showing them examples of streetscapes and site drawings. They tried their hands at both using a combination of tracing paper and photographs of their neighborhood. One girl in the group was surprised to learn that urban design was a career stating “I can’t believe people can get paid to do drawings like this!” We found that one of the most effective ways to keep the students engaged in the planning process was to emphasize the creative element of planning, and both site drawing and streetscape design underscored this.

Having identified strategies and drawn out ideas for improving the neighborhood, we were soon able to wrap up the planning process. We pulled the final powerpoint presentation together over lunch and ran through it with the students a few times, teaching them some basic public speaking skills along the way. While some of the students were extremely shy in practicing the presentation, it was amazing to watch how, with just a couple of run-throughs, those same students were quickly jumping at the opportunity to present. We also maintained their writing throughout the presentation, so the final product truly reflected their work.

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Celebrating—and implementing: the Columbus Near East Side neighborhood releases its Blueprint for Community Investment

By Steve Kearney, Senior Planner

I attended the July 10 rollout of the Blueprint for Community Investment for Columbus, Ohio’s, Near East Side neighborhoods. Sponsored by PACT (Partners Achieving Community Transformation), the Blueprint reflects two years of community visioning, resident engagement, market analysis and collaboration among residents and the PACT partners—the City, The Ohio State University, and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, owner of two housing developments in the area.

Funded largely by a Choice Neighborhoods planning grant from HUD, the Blueprint lays out a comprehensive strategy for revitalizing the Near East neighborhoods by focusing on projects that improve quality of life for residents existing and new. When fully implemented, the Blueprint could bring more than $150 million in new investment to the area, including roughly 1,200 new housing units, 75,000 square feet of new commercial space, new community-serving facilities, and revitalized commercial corridors in an overlooked section of the city. The plan also introduces new thinking about education, job training, and social services for Near East residents.

It was especially encouraging to see that implementation efforts are already under way even before the plan’s official debut. Projects now moving forward include conversion of a vacant public school into an adult-education facility; development of a K-12 school-feeder pattern that focuses on health-sciences jobs and career opportunities, spurred by the presence of OSU’s University Hospital East; and development of an intergenerational day care center.

We developed the Blueprint to put the Near East neighborhoods in a prime position to compete for a Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant, which could add an additional $30 million towards implementation. The housing authority has begun preparing the application for the grant, but has also pledged to pursue redevelopment of its Near East properties whether or not it wins Choice funding. The Near East plan represents the fourth Choice Neighborhoods planning assignment Goody Clancy has undertaken in the last two years.

The following link will take you to a video that introduces the major stakeholders and highlights the key elements of the plan:

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A Birmingham Underpass gets an Upgrade

By Kat Maines, Project and Marketing Assistant

There is often a common goal in urban environments to connect with people and connect with place; public art installations can help achieve this goal by creating unique landmarks that invite residents and visitors to stroll and linger. When done successfully, public art is a critical tool for placemaking. As a scalable tool, it can also be a relatively inexpensive way to revitalize a struggling site. Barriers to implementation, therefore, are often organizational and easily overcome through partnerships and community initiatives.

Goody Clancy has been working with the City of Birmingham, Alabama for over two years to create a shared vision and framework for both community and physical development over the next twenty years. The Draft Comprehensive Plan, currently under review by the community, includes a recommendation to invite San Antonio artist Bill Fitzgibbons to create a light installation in the downtown underpasses in Birmingham. This was included as a suggested step toward one of Birmingham’s goals for sustaining downtown Birmingham: “Downtown is made up of connected and mutually reinforcing districts.” The plan suggests considering a One Percent for Art program for downtown improvements to the public realm, such as public art projects. In Birmingham, streetscape and road projects in downtown that enhance connectivity are particularly suitable for this kind of program because of the need to create a pedestrian interest in the areas between activity centers. In addition, art projects can enhance problematic locations like the historic pedestrian underpasses linking the north and south parts of downtown.

It is one thing to explain the benefits of public art, but often implementation of these recommendations takes time. Even with all of the right intentions and recommendations in place, organizations must be motivated to act: taking leadership, initiating relationships with artists, and attaining the necessary funding for the project. Goody Clancy planners are finding more and more that the planning process, as opposed to the  product, can help to initiate implementation efforts  before the document is accepted. Open houses, community meetings, online forums, and informal conversations give residents, stakeholders, and community organizations a way to share their goals and find a consensus-based vision for the future. In other recent projects such as the City Center Master Plan for Sandy Springs, GA and the East Franklinton Creative Community District Plan for Columbus, OH, the planning process has piqued developers’ interests in the area, helping to initiate development and redevelopment even before plan adoption.

In the case of Birmingham, REV Birmingham, the city’s economic development organization, and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham acted well before the plan was adopted. The Community Foundation provided a grant for the project as well as for a plan for where future public art could be installed. REV Birmingham will solicit donations for future installations. The first public light art installation, by Bill Fitzgibbons, opened on June 27th underneath the 18th Street Viaduct not far from Railroad Park. Birmingham residents came out to see the lights and enjoy the way they connect First Avenue North and the east gate of the park, improve the sense of safety underneath the viaduct, and aesthetically rejuvenate the area.

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David Dixon at the Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium

“I am astounded by the progress that you have all made in New Orleans in having a city where you actually believe in your city. You may be mad at your mayor or mad at each other or your councilor, but you assume that if you make policies and rules and solve problems like this you’ll be able to do something about it and that’s a huge step forward.”
-Goody Clancy’s David Dixon, principal in charge of planning and urban design

On April 4, Mr. Dixon joined 5 other speakers at the Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium in New Orleans to talk to folks about the shifting demographic trends that will result in a bright future for New Orleans, and a complex future for some of its neighborhoods.

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Wichita wastes no time in implementing its 2011 downtown plan

By Ben Carlson, Senior Urban Designer

Downtown Wichita is active! Barely 18 months after adopting a downtown master plan – created by Goody Clancy and a team of economic and transportation experts – developers, designers, new residents, growing businesses, and city staff have already achieved impressive results. Goody Clancy principal David Dixon and I recently had a chance to visit Wichita, see its progress, and meet with some of the entrepreneurs, leaders and students making further investments in their downtown.

Nearly $300 million has been invested in a variety of private development and public infrastructure projects influenced by the planning process. Nearly $100 million more was invested in 2012, and another $112 million in projects was being planned or already under construction when we visited. Downtown has added and filled 300 new housing units per year – twice the rate forecast for the plan by Laurie Volk, known nationally for her expertise in defining emerging urban housing markets. 40 businesses came to downtown in 2012, while the YMCA, Kansas Leadership Foundation and a major church built highly visible new facilities. A 14-story office building — beautiful in its 1920s heyday but decades past its prime as office space — has re-emerged as a handsome boutique hotel. Another hotel, the venerable Broadview, got a thorough renovation and added a new conference facility and outdoor terrace overlooking the Arkansas River.
I was particularly struck by how three powerful factors have driven downtown Wichita’s achievements: partnerships, demand for downtown housing, and quality design.

“Block 1” exemplifies the opportunity that comes from people working in partnership. For years prior to the downtown planning process, this prominent block stagnated for due to weak market demand, lack of parking, and animosity between two property owners. It contained that 1920s office building I mentioned above, as well as the city’s former flagship department store, also long shuttered. Our plan suggested reviving both buildings with housing or hotel uses that could take advantage of their smaller floor sizes, and providing parking that both buildings could share in a new public garage screened from pedestrian view. It also suggested that the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation (WDDC) — a champion of downtown supported by major property owners and businesses — encourage cooperation among property owners and the City on efforts of mutual interest. In a remarkably short time, people in Wichita transformed the situation on the block following just these strategies.

The WDDC brought new-generation property owners together with the City and the Kansas Leadership Foundation – which had been looking to move its headquarters and conference center, also on the block, someplace else with better parking – to forge a plan benefiting all players. The City’s commitment to building a parking structure enabled the foundation to rebuild bigger and better on-site, while providing enough capacity to attract new uses to the vacant historic buildings. The City also collaborated with the other site owners to transform a midblock alley into a pedestrian-friendly walkway and small plaza, complete with mosaic murals, that neatly pulls loading activity to the block’s interior, eliminating disruption on the sidewalks (since improving pedestrian conditions across downtown was a key goal of the final plan). All stakeholders worked together to brand the new mix of uses as “Block 1” in signage and marketing. The former department store and new ground-floor storefronts in the garage still await tenants, but whether office, housing or retail, these uses will complement the hotel and conference center by adding activity at different times of the day and week, and by making more efficient use of the block’s shared parking.

The Finn Lofts are just one of the many projects completed since approval of the downtown Plan in 2010.

The Finn Lofts are just one of the many projects completed since approval of the downtown Plan in 2010.

Housing Demand
Laurie Volk’s housing market analysis – which showed potential for 1,500 additional housing units over 10 years – identified housing as the most important engine of investment in downtown. For a community firmly committed to the power and principle of entrepreneurial initiative, this solid indication of market opportunity proved a cornerstone for the plan. In the three years since we reported her findings publicly, the market has borne out Laurie’s conservative projections…and then some. Dave Burke, an architect and developer whose pioneering work has shown downtown as a great place to live, rented nearly all 36 lofts in a restored player piano factory within five weeks of putting them on the market. This follows successful rent-up of nearly 90 units in a converted school that took place during the downtown planning process. Other developers have joined him in creating hundreds more units in renovated buildings. Michael Ramsey and El Dorado architects have borught a modern design sensibility and creative unit types to their renovations. Fresh from creating new units in Wichita’s funky Commerce Street Arts District, they have begun conversion of an art deco office building to a residential building designed for singles and couples with young children as well as older singles and couples. The building will boast a play terrace for kids overlooked by a higher-level terrace for adults, and a lobby that features both a coffee bar and a daycare center.
These projects share a common approach of transforming a considerable stock of obsolete office, institutional and industrial buildings into housing utilizing historic tax credits as a key funding mechanism. The Garvey Center, a mixed-use development that helped kick off downtown’s residential revival ten years ago by transforming a Holiday Inn into apartments, will soon break new ground on downtown’s first newly built housing in decades. Taking advantage of cost efficiencies created by sharing parking with adjacent office buildings, its 36 units will anchor a downtown neighborhood oriented to the Arkansas River’s extensive greenway and the city’s museum district.
High-quality design
Finally, excellent design – in architecture, landscape, and urbanism – has proved its value. Most striking is the YMCA’s new facility at a prominent gateway to downtown. Architects Schaeffer Johnson showcase the building’s basketball court and pool behind broad windows along two major streets. This design move has a double payoff: the display of diverse people engaged in intense activity, day and night, celebrates the Y’s mission of building community and health, and its light and high visibility makes streets safe and inviting for walking, underscoring downtown’s vitality. Several housing developments combine sensitive historic restoration with bold new architecture that reinforces Wichita’s architectural heritage while infusing it with new currency. Redesigned streetscapes reinforce the sense of place in downtown’s multiple emerging neighborhoods. Brick paving, vintage street lights and interpretive signage chronicling an industrial past reinterpret St. Francis Street as a place of small businesses, loft housing and restaurants. Along Commerce Street, artists and residents rejected new utility poles in favor of keeping their old bent ones that reflect the street’s traditional industrial character. By the end of this year, new custom-designed bus shelters will help reinforce Douglas Avenue’s emerging role as an inviting and convenient place to catch transit. The WDDC has planted its development and design center in a Douglas Avenue storefront. The center helps suburban developers, now expressing interest in working downtown, translate the design conventions they know into urban formats that welcome pedestrians and the mix of activities unique to downtown.
The success of partnerships, the self-reinforcing housing market, and high-quality design owe owes much to two leaders of the downtown master planning process. Jeff Fluhr, president of the WDDC, channels his abundant energy and charisma into connecting developers, designers, property and business owners, community leaders and other stakeholders. He understands how those connection can catalyze the opportunities that come from collaboration. WDDC daily celebrates downtown’s successes while tackling the obstacles to fully realizing downtown’s potential — for example, recruiting retail tenants to pioneer locations and untangling complex land leases. Scott Knebel, Downtown Revitalization Manager for the City of Wichita, leads efforts to establish partnerships in which the City’s investment in public infrastructure unlocks new private investment. He coordinates the City’s downtown infrastructure, transit and management operations to make sure they work together smoothly and maximize opportunity for private investors to create valuable new places downtown.

Wichita’s downtown successes have stemmed in part from community leaders’ strong interest in studying other downtowns to learn what has worked for them. As Wichitans work together to apply these lessons, they have demonstrated best practices themselves and pioneered new approaches. The city and its private- and public-sector leaders have become an impressive model for residents looking to revive downtowns and urban neighborhoods in cities across the United States.


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Goody Clancy Wins Top National Planning Award



Click Here to Read More about the 2013 National Planning Award


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The ‘Easy’ Button for Going Solar at Home (part 2)

By Chad Perry, Planning and Urban Design Manager
In a post back in May I provided some background about the process and decision to go solar with my roughly 80-year-old single-family house. I promised more info “upon completion,” so here we go.

The panels went up over a couple of very hot days in July (sorry, roof guys), and after a few inspections and final sign-off by our utility we were authorized to flip the switch in August.

Are we glad we did it? Well, it didn’t cost us a penny…but I’ll let some graphics from our utility company and SunRun (at the moment only operating in 10 states) illustrate that answer a bit better.

This chart from National Grid makes it easy to see when we went active and how we (blue line) compare with our neighbors’ energy usage—not to mention what little use we’ll have for the utility’s product going forward.

SunRun’s customer site provides many options for monitoring impact and production. Here’s our impact for the first month or so.

In part 3, my two-year-old will explain via video the nuts and bolts of how solar work. Either that or why she prefers the curvy slide to the bumpy slide at the park…she’s a little unpredictable on tape.

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Eight Go-To Sources on Climate Change and Urban Resilience

By Steve Wolf, senior designer
The back-burner issue of resilience planning has rocketed to the top of political agendas in coastal cities around the US as a result of Superstorm Sandy. As we were putting together our post about the need to keep urban design at the center of that planning (below), we found ourselves, um, flooded with Web links and resources. We share the best of those here and plan to expand this list as we find more.

  • Rising sea levels in New York Bay proved a key ingredient in the huge storm surges that washed over all five boroughs during Sandy. We’ve seen no clearer introduction to the science behind sea level rise in New York and globally than this interview with NASA Goddard Institute climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig, posted at NOAA’s Climate Portal. It manages to convey the gravity of the challenge New York faces in the next century without sensationalism—no small feat.
  • Architecture 2030 offers a wealth of information on the threat climate change poses to American cities and effective strategies for shrinking the carbon footprint of the built environment. Its unfussy interactive map feature shows the impact of higher sea levels on dozens of coastal communities.
  • One of the best overviews of climate-change impacts globally comes from a report released in 2007 by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). It ranks the 20 most-vulnerable cities in 2005 in terms of population and cost of potential damage from 1-in-100-year flooding (a standard that will soon require dramatic recalibration, as back-to-back Hurricanes Irene and Sandy showed in New York), and provides a comparable list for 2070.
  • The Urban Climate Change Research Network focuses on urban areas worldwide and released a useful comprehensive report on the topic in 2011.
  • The relatively young Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast focuses on risk and adaptation for Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and will eventually broaden its scope to include smaller coastal cities from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. It comprises researchers at UMass, Columbia, CCNY, Stevens, and Drexel—a happy coincidence for us, since we recently completed a 30-year master plan for the Drexel campus.
  • The post-storm chatter about protecting New York’s infrastructure turned reflexively to engineered solutions, from massive storm barriers to Texas-sized inflatable plugs that might have kept seven East River tunnels dry. Mainstream thinking, however, increasingly includes approaches that enlist natural processes in creating cheaper and lower-maintenance solutions. Next American City pulled together a good sampling of these “soft” proposals.
  • During our creation of the post-Katrina master plan for New Orleans, we had the good fortune to take part in the provocative Dutch Dialogues organized by Waggonner & Ball architects. The provocative series offers an excellent model for rethinking a city’s relationship with water and for reimagining water-control infrastructure as urban amenities—precisely what we mean when we argue that urban design must play a central role in resilience planning.
  • As for those engineered approaches, the reliable Yale Environment 360 features contributions from faculty and researchers at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. This post offers a thoughtful look at surge barriers, one of the “hard” solutions most commonly cited after the storm. It reviews how barriers could protect New York Bay and notes their increasing use in cities from Providence to St. Petersburg.
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In Sandy’s Wake, More Resilience…and More Urban Design

by David Dixon, principal-in-charge of planning and urban design, and Steve Wolf, senior designer
Hurricane Sandy’s banal name belied its dramatic impacts. The morning after the storm’s passage we learned just how vulnerable large American cities have become to the impacts of climate change—and New York found itself, as usual, at the center of the action, with seven East River tunnels filled with water, Manhattan below 34th Street without electricity, and flooding in every borough.

“New weather patterns…and old infrastructure,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, with uncharacteristic understatement, “are not a good combination.” He asserted, however, that a new generation of resilient infrastructure designed with rising seas and fiercer storms in mind offered New Yorkers a singular opportunity to “build this city back stronger and better.” His words should resonate around the globe; the assets at risk from coastal flooding in the ten most vulnerable cities worldwide equaled 5% of global GDP in 2005, according to the OECD. That proportion will nearly double over the next 60 years as cities grow and sea levels rise.

Although no scientist argued that climate change directly caused Sandy, climatologists almost universally agree that it amplified the storm and its impact (for instance here and in an excellent and accessible discussion here). Record-breaking water terperatures fed energy into the system, extra water in the atmosphere boosted rainfall, and above Greenland a “blocking front” linked to polar-ice loss forced the storm inland rather than allowing it to take a typical offshore course toward the North Atlantic. Crucially for New York, rising sea levels exacerbated storm damage. In the 20th century, New York harbor has risen nearly a foot, creeping gradually up the seawall built around lower Manhattan at the start of the 20th century. The outlook for the 21st century makes that increase look like chump change: By 2100, melting polar ice and thermal expansion will push the world’s oceans to a much higher new normal. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) projects that sea levels will rise between 7 inches and 2.5 feet, but other models that factor in more significant melting of polar ice project rises of up to 6 feet. Additionally, New York sits in a sea-level “hot spot” running from North Carolina to Massachusetts where currents, water temperatures and other conditions could add as much as another foot to that total.

After Hurricane Katrina (our previous “once-in-a-lifetime” storm), New Orleans taught us that America lacks the financial resources and the political tools to relocate entire communities threatened by rising seas to safer ground. The reality of more and increasingly destructive storms like Sandy means that coastal communities will need to focus  on rising seas. Governor Cuomo’s call for “stronger and better” suggests that the billions of dollars communities will spend to protect themselves can, with smart planning, also enhance those communities. Protection from rising seas does not have to mean a  design driven by engineering.  Urban design that assures walkability, sense of place, human scale and delight will need to play a starring role in building resilience.

New York has already studied raised ventilation grates to block subway flooding, in the process reconceiving them as voluptuous street furniture. Solutions like this suggest how urban design can guide climate-change response, here delivering subway protection below ground and a more walkable environment above. In fact, a 2010 show at the Museum of Modern Art suggested a suite of imaginative (and more sweeping) physical interventions in the harbor that would both build the city physically and dampen the destructive power of storm-driven waves. (Also here.)

As noted, New York hardly stands alone. The OECD projects that by 2070, 150 million people in coastal cities—primarily Asian capitals like Calcutta, Shanghai, and Singapore—will regularly encounter what we now call 1-in-100-year flooding. (Several US cities besides New York show up on this list of global misfortune, including Miami, Virginia Beach, and New Orleans). Outside the US, cities have already begun to respond to climate change, building seawalls that become waterfront parks, the foundations for expanded financial districts, or found land for performing arts centers. The Netherlands has for decades pioneered ways of transforming water-control measures from potential infrastructure nightmare into valued community-building assets—creating barrier islands as beach resorts, inventing new ways to use water as an urban amenity, and looking to rising seas as a new source of energy.

As Americans and their elected officials reframe the discussion about resilience in the wake of Sandy, we will need to look at best practices around the globe for models. And the best ones have almost uniformly turned to good design and urban planning to turn their response to climate change into the building blocks of stronger, healthier, more appealing cities.

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Planning Basics: Building in Walkability

by Phil Schaeffing, urban designer and planner

Among urban planners and the general public, “walkability” describes a key desired characteristic of existing neighborhoods and new development.  A growing body of research associates higher levels of daily physical activity with improved health outcomes. Since walking is the perfect way to integrate more activity into a daily routine, how can urban designers and planners make it a more attractive option for people?

A variety of factors contribute to an area’s walkability, including land use mix, distance to destinations, and pedestrian infrastructure like crosswalks and connected sidewalks. The quality of the physical environment also makes a significant difference in people’s willingness to walk and how enjoyable the experience is. Shade in summer, protection from biting winds in winter, a stimulating visual environment, and the presence of other pedestrians all help encourage people to walk. Planners can do their part by designing sidewalks that promote all these elements and by retrofitting existing sidewalks to incorporate them.

The example in the photo—which could be from almost any city in the US but is, in fact, Atlanta—offers no shade to provide relief from the summer sun, and the parking lots adjacent to the sidewalk create dead areas with nothing interesting to look at. Other pedestrians are a rarity at most times of the day because there is little reason to walk there.

How could this sidewalk be improved? The narrow width makes planting trees a challenge, but reconfiguring the roadway to eliminate a travel lane and replace it with a wider sidewalk and/or bike lane is one option. Another is to build bulb-outs into the on-street parking and plant trees in the resulting new space, increasing shade without obstructing the sidewalk. Encouraging infill development on existing parking lots would eliminate voids, increase visual interest, and provide more destinations for pedestrians. Such new development would need to hug the sidewalk, as the older buildings on the right do (although they could leave a few extra feet for swales or a small active space in front of a restaurant). As these incremental changes take place, more people will be drawn to the area, further increasing the attractiveness of walking.

Existing streets and sidewalks provide plenty of opportunities for this type of creative re-thinking of the public realm. Getting more people walking delivers many benefits: it increases physical activity and can foster a sense of community when pedestrians begin to see the same people every day. Encouraging walking can also act as an economic development tool, since walking is free and operating a car costs money that could be spent locally. Planners can play a key role in this process by advocating in their communities for more funds for these types of walkability enhancements that have multiple benefits.

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Update: Shared Spaces

by Steve Wolf, senior graphic designer

When I wrote last February about shared spaces I didn’t realize that they had an actual inventor, freethinking Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. The always-useful Cap’n Transit Rides Again blog corrected that oversight in today’s post, which offers a succinct analysis of how not to design a shared space (or woonerf, as its intellectual father would have called it). The Captain’s analysis includes an insight that I dismissed in my February post but which actually cuts to the heart of why woonerven work. Discussing intersections in the New York borough of Queens, he notes that removing stoplights “calms traffic by replacing rules (follow the light) with negotiations (communicated through eye contact).” When drivers are forced into negotiations, they see pedestrians differently than they do when rules make it possible for them to operate without thinking about their surroundings. In essence, rules elevate driving above all other activities on the street—even though planning and even political thinking have moved well beyond that habit of mind.

Massachusetts, in fact, has experienced the benefit of favoring negotiation over rules, thanks to a spate of signs in crosswalks (and I mean literally in crosswalks, on stanchions) pointing out that state law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. That law isn’t new, but the signs are, and my own experience suggests that they’ve made motorists a lot more aware, if not completely respectful, of pedestrians. (NB: The link to the Wilson Quarterly article on Hans Monderman comes via the Cap’n Transit post.)

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Hall of Fame Award from Residential Architect magazine

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