Fad Diet: Better Urban Planning

The value of a pair of shoes and a bike are increasing faster than ever before.

Ever since the 1970’s, American cities have struggled with the changing landscape of the transition from the industrial to post-industrial, knowledge-based economies and the ‘flight’ of people, wealth, and the associated tax base.  During that same period, American obesity has increased at a staggering rate.  Coincidence?

Given the renewed attention on healthy food choices, by now, most of us have seen the studies that show American’s collective problems with health and weight.  Our median Body Mass Index (BMI) is #1 (highest) in high income countries – not a good first place stat to boast about.  So, could architecture, development & urban planning be partly to blame…or credit for a fix?

Ever since the early part of the 20th century, Americans witnessed dramatic changes to the built environment as cities began to develop around automobiles.  People pushed further & further outside of town to afford more land & build their new dream homes, and as a result, cities grew by land mass, streets became wider, asphalt & concrete paved over prairies, people drove further, sat longer in traffic, walked less, and unknowingly lost time moving.

Let’s set the record straight, architects and planners are not health care professionals…and this article has by no means exhausted the research necessary to tie a connection with development growth patterns and weight, but…for the sake of simple thought, could there be a relationship between urban development shifts and health over time?

In recent years, more and more people are moving back to urban areas and taking back the cities that were abandoned over time.  Most studies attribute the return to urban areas around walkability and access to transit or proximity to cultural or entertainment destinations.  For a professional service provider, or anyone else that understands their own value of time, reductions in commute time also weigh into personal decisions that are contributing to the renaissance in urban revitalization.  

Pedestrian-oriented cities with choices for transit (motorized & non-motorized) show faster growth, higher demand, and stronger real estate values than places that haven’t changed with the times.  Now more than ever, our local and regional municipalities need to continue, or start, to invest in walkable, bikeable, pedestrian-oriented, sustainable & safe environments for the future.  For the growing wearable fitness tracking society, it’s worth it in more ways than one.

Bike Lanes


Who knows…with more urban focus and growth, maybe we’ll start to see the collective American BMI decrease.

The power of positive thinking.



5 Reasons to Invest in the Center City

We’ve heard the news already.  People are moving back to the city.  You don’t need stats to see the cranes and read the weekly headlines about the latest new project bringing more residents to the urban core.

Demand centers around unique offerings and walkability, and the good news is that this shift in living preferences doesn’t seem to be a passing trend.  With the rise of the automobile in the 1920’s came the the decline of walkability, but recently (since 2005), we’ve seen miles driven per capita plummet for a variety of reasons (read more here). shared_space_brighton_yellow_book

Now is the time to invest in the center city – here are five reasons why:

It’s Not Just Millenials

Among young adults, some perceptions are reality (that’s for another article).  In the same survey referenced above, 77% of millennials expressed a desire for a walkable lifestyle with access to transportation.  Even so, many older
adults are looking to downsize from their suburban family homes and they’re looking for the same offerings.  Baby Boomers represented 9.8% of the population in 1970, and only 13% in 2010, but by 2030 this generation of active adults will represent over 20% of our population. Ask around – they aren’t interested in (another) 4 bedroom home on an acre of land at the end of a culdesac.

Cars Aren’t That Cool Anymore

America’s highest percentage of income is spent on housing.  Second to housing is transportation and it represents between 15-20% of our cost of living budget.  Anyone gone car shopping recently?  The average price for a new vehicle is $32,000.00.  That’s insane…and likely one of the main reasons that over 25% of Americans ages 16-34 do not have a diver’s license.  When you look at the rise of walking and biking from the same demographic, the statistics tell the whole story.

Access to Transportation

With cars that cost $32,000 and Americans spending over $2,000 a year on gasoline (not including taxes & insurance), you can quickly calculate the economic benefits of not owning a car.  For many people, this may be a necessity for work, school, and errands, but you can understand how walkable neighborhoods benefit residents in more ways than one.  The good news is that major cities are catching on, and focusing efforts on multi-modal regional transportation strategies.  Those that don’t will be left out in the competition for new residents (and taxes).

Economic Benefits

Dense walkable neighborhoods create demand for services, thereby creating jobs.  It’s no secret that retail follows people, and studies have shown that higher walk scores directly correlate to higher retail sales.  Is it any surprise, then, that housing in walkable neighborhoods are in highest demand and held stronger values during the crash of 2008?  In a 2013 survey by the National Association of Realtors, 60% of Americans reported a preference for a neighborhood with a mix of houses, stores and businesses that are easy to walk to.

It’s Green

Walkable neighborhoods greatest value may be it’s ability to free residents from their dependence on cars and shrink their carbon footprints. The green movement isn’t a passing trend either, and studies show that 55% of people around the world now say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.  When commuters trade their long suburban drives for a walk or subway ride to work, they cut down on pollution and traffic. They can also save a significant amount of money on transportation.

So, what are you waiting for?  Find your place to live, work, and play downtown.


Seaside Model Development

This year my family chose to take two vacations: one with each side of our respective families.  Coincidentally, each family chose the same location – Destin, FL.  While my personality demands a little more diversity than spending time and hard earned money for similar experiences, I looked at the glass half full and found ways to appreciate the traffic, chain restaurants, cookie cutter beachside condos, and tourist shops that define much of Destin on the surface…especially since our families are heavily geared towards young children and our trips these days are defined less by luxury or unique experiences and more by quality of time spent with each other.  On both trips, and to appease my personal interests, I took some time to venture out of Destin to visit a place I’ve looked at and studied for a long time.

Fort-W.-DSD-348  f6a644a6-3d89-4f79-b99b-482e9384e084.1.10 Destin, FL

Seaside, FL is a mere 20-25 miles from Destin, in between Destin and Panama City, FL.  The town developed around a vision by the land owner & developer, Robert Davis, in the early 1980’s with the help and execution from architecture & planning firm DPZ out of Miami, FL.  The vision was simple – create a sense of place as an antidote to urban sprawl that had already begun to takeover similar towns and cities in FL (i.e. Destin).  Those unfamiliar with the architectural & city planning aspects that make Seaside special are most likely familiar with the constructed reality and idealistic portrayal of modern society in the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carey.

IMG_1348   IMG_1351 Seaside, FL

A community built around the pedestrian with small residential lots, small streets, lack of parking, slower traffic speeds, and mixed residential & commercial uses planned to encourage thoughtful interaction of community amenities seemed foreign at the time Seaside was developed (and still does to many people), but what emerged was the foundation of a new ‘old-again’ movement that many look to emulate today around the country.  New Urbanism or Traditional Neighborhood Development was born, and one visit to town makes you a believer in what value good design brings to a place.

timthumb.php-2  IMG_1346 Public Space

Town highlights are shown below, as an excerpt from the Smart Communities Network (http://www.smartcommunities.ncat.org/success/Seaside.shtml).  The single best stat that helps paint the picture of the true value in smart, community-based design is reflected in real estate values.  A single residential lot could be purchased for around $15,000 in the early 80’s.  Those lots are valued over $1MM today, with several homes valued over $10MM.  Without much context or specifics (location and a lot of intangibles aside), but for the sake of stats, that’s a 13%-14% increase in value, compounded annually, versus the average historical US real estate appreciation rates hovering at or below the 5% range.

IMG_1344  IMG_1347 Seaside Details

Features of Seaside

  • The Seaside plan was designed to optimize waterfront access and views for all of the town’s residents, not just those with beach front home sites.
  • The community’s porch-lined streets and walkways all lead to the beach or town center.
  • Seaside’s design places an emphasis on the town’s public spaces, which range from its main square to the pedestrian-only footpaths at the centers of blocks.
  • Considerable architectural variety exists at Seaside, with designs spanning styles such as Victorian, Neoclassical, Cracker, Modern, Postmodern and Deconstuctivist.
  • A network of sand walkways cuts through the middles of blocks, enabling one to walk comfortably to the beach in bare feet.
  • The majority of the buildings on the beach are public.
  • The town’s market area uses shipping containers for construction.  Their industrial character is softened by the addition of gable roofs, wooden columns and fabric canopies.
  • Fences must be of a different style than all the others on the block.  Front porches are set back about 16 feet behind the fences so that those having conversations with passersby would not have to raise their voices.
  • The streets offer pedestrians the feeling of being in a public room.  This is accomplished by keeping the streets narrow and having buildings with uniform fronts.

Principles of Traditional Neighborhood Development

Communities like Seaside that are built on the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) model feature many of the following:

  • Instead of the traditional development model in which residential and commercial zones are typically separated (thus encouraging the growth of transportation infrastructure), the TND model integrates development.  All structures fan out from a town center, which is often a square or green, and sometimes a busy or memorable street intersection.
  • Shops and offices are located at the edge of the neighborhood, and the shops are sufficiently varied to supply the weekly needs of a household. A convenience store is the most important among them.
  • Elementary schools are located within one mile of all residences so that children can walk to school.
  • Small playgrounds, ideally within one-eighth of a mile from all dwellings, dot the landscape.
  • The streets are laid out in a network, so that there are alternative routes to most destinations.
  • Streets do not end in cul de sacs.
  • Buildings at the neighborhood center are placed close to the street. This creates a strong sense of place.

Benefits of Traditional Neighborhood Development

  • By bringing most of the activities of daily living into walking distance, everyone (especially the elderly and the young) gains independence of movement.
  • By reducing the number and length of automobile trips, traffic congestion is minimized, the expenses of road construction are limited and air pollution is reduced.
  • By providing streets and squares of comfortable scale with defined spatial quality, neighbors can come to know each other and to watch over their collective security.
  • By providing appropriate building concentrations at easy walking distances from transit stops, public transit becomes a viable alternative to the automobile.

One thing is for sure: Seaside has staying power.  I’d recommend a visit to everyone, and hopefully, by more people visiting and seeing the benefits in person, more people will see the power of Traditional Neighborhood Development and get behind adaptation of similar concepts to their own sense of place.