Walkable urbanism

Can walkability save a downtown? Christopher Leinberger in his new book, “The Option of Urbanism,” makes just such a case.

This column by author Neil Peirce begins with a little suburban history lesson:

(A)fter World War II, with Americans’ rush to thousands of new suburban locations, a never-before-seen norm appeared. Leinberger calls it “drivable sub-urbanism.” And what a market smash it proved, offering Americans a sense of freedom, mobility, privacy, their own piece of turf and a yard for the kids to play. Plus plenty of jobs and profits, from autos to oil to real estate to fast food. …

But in the 1990s, the model began to lose some of its luster. Suburbia’s big parking lots and low-density zoning meant an auto for every trip. Walking and transit were impractical. Older suburbs began to decline, inducing families to drive farther and farther to new suburban rings. Thousands of malls and shopping strips were abandoned. Traffic congestion — and Washington is no exception — became so severe that many families were obliged to build their lives around it. Kids had to be driven everywhere. Vehicle miles driven in America shot up a stunning 226 percent from 1983 to 2001, while population increased just 22 percent.

The suburbs aren’t going to go away, of course. But more recent trends may begin to favor the more traditional urban model:

(W)alkable urbanism has demographics going for it. The share of U.S. families with children at home has been declining sharply; the largest household growth will be empty nesters, never-nesters and singles, many likely to look to cities and their excitement. And cities, competing, will likely keep heeding advice to lure creative young professionals; in fact, those that don’t offer true walkable urbanism, Leinberger suggests, are “probably destined” to lose out economically.

You can read Peirce’s entire article and then visit Leinberger’s Web site, with links to dozens of PDFs of stories about walkability in different cities, such as Dallas and Detroit.

Hat tip: DFWB · Photo by Moriza on Flickr

Ye Olde Urbanism gets boot in britches

A proposal to build a Medieval European village has gotten hogtied by modern Indiana regulations.

The people behind Simpler Times Village want to build a rural community with old-fashioned ideals — really olde — in green space in Madison County. From its Web site:

Can you imagine a storybook village in old world Europe? Have you ever traveled to Italy or Austria to see a community built before 1800? We are working to recreate such a place…

Simpler Times Village is unique because residents will be able to live, work and enjoy agriculture all in one place. You can open a bed and breakfast, own a simple vacation cabin or build a fine estate. You can have gardens and chickens in your backyard. …

But according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the county commissioners are none too keen on allowing such a development encroach on agricultural areas.

If you look past the dreadful Thomas Kinkade aesthetics and the evangelical escapism, much of the goals of the village are actually quite laudable. Kevin of Urban Indy — who deserves the hat tip for my post — sums it up nicely:

(T)he idea is not terrible. They would have been built to incorporate small farms. The buildings and streetscapes are human-scaled. Also, the businesses would be locally owned.

The fact that this would have been a green field development gets a thumbs down, though. I suspect that a good chunk of people who move to these greenfield New Urbanist developments still drive to work. Public transit would be non-existent.

Exactly. Why not try to do something like this inside an existing city? Can the developers find a city innovative enough — or desperate enough — to relax some of the outdated suburban zoning strictures in a few city neighborhood blocks? This idea doesn’t need outdated architecture to work. It needs creative civic leaders, developers and potential residents who don’t mind walking — and don’t mind a few chickens.

Casinos are still illegal, aren’t they?

Somehow, Fort Wayne seems to have elected a mayor who is aggressively pro-gambling.

If you missed it, Mayor Tom Henry told Indiana’s NewsCenter on the first day in office that he wants the plans for a new Fort Wayne casino in place by this summer:

The topic of gambling has crossed the mind of Henry at the start of his administration.

Concerning the idea for a new casino at Buck Lake in Steuben County, Henry wants to push to have that re-located in Fort Wayne, and he will try and lay the groundwork for such a change through the spring and summer months.

Wow. That was quick, Mr. Henry. Did he campaign on this issue, or is this a surprise to everyone else, too?

Plenty of local people have discussed a Fort Wayne casino — WOWO’s Pat White never tires of trotting it out — and everyone interested is lining up on either the pro or con side. Of course, it’s actually illegal right now, but everyone seems to treat that fact as something of almost no consequence.

I believe we too easily change or add laws without understanding history. Here’s what I propose as a basic rule for changing rules:

Do not change a law, rule or procedure until you understand why it was enacted in the first place.

That’s pretty simple, but how often is it done?

Why did Indiana make gambling illegal in the first place? What has changed since then? Economics? Organized crime? Our morality? Our desperation? Our care for the poor? Unless Fort Wayne understands the answers to these questions and can intelligently interact with them, we have no right to even talk about overturning a gambling ban.

Photo by John Wardell on Flickr

Great article: ‘Urban Paradox’

Today I have the pleasure of pointing you to an excellent summation of what we’re hoping to accomplish here at The Good City.

This article, called “Urban Paradox: Reconnecting Church and the City,” was published in byFaith magazine and written to a more general Christian audience, so it starts with a bedrock Biblical foundation:

Biblical Christianity is about land, about subways, cars, and high rises. It affirms God as Creator, and as sovereign over every bit of creation. Therefore our responsibility as stewards, as those who have been given dominion, is to safeguard God’s work, and His pleasure in it. Our concern is that God be pleased when He looks to our cities.

The authors of the article, Michael Van Pelt and Rob Joustra of the Work Research Foundation, discuss New Urbanism and how it’s difficult to encapsulate what it actually is. But still, it’s principles aren’t really new at all:

The concern of New Urbanism for community, whole development, and human flourishing is not merely the concern of the institutional church; it forms the matrix of what we Christians call “good news.” In many ways what is striking is not why municipal leaders and New Urbanists should look at churches as allies, but rather, why church leaders have been conspicuously absent from this dialogue. Can community be built from within the physical form of traditional towns without under-girding social structures? What part can churches play in New Urbanism and the revitalization of urban spaces?

Van Pelt and Joustra give the church three ways to answer those questions:

  • Befriend the stranger in the city
  • Help create human comfort in the city
  • Create sacred spaces that relate to the city

And in conclusion:

Urban renewal requires the kind of vision and action that churches and people of faith possess. It is an urban vision firmly entrenched in the knowledge of the creator God, acted out faithfully in response to His Word, with contextual reflection. There is almost no limit to the imaginative manifestations that such a church can take. But churches and Christians must begin to take this kind of earthy Christianity, which bespeaks such pertinence to architecture, community, and transit more seriously if they are to realize a vision of urban centers built and sustained for human flourishing and the glory of God.

Be sure to read the whole article.

Photo by Christine (bpc) on Flickr