new york times
We grew up as planners learning that shopping malls sapped downtown of its energy–whether it was small town retailers wiped out by the mall just over the county line or urban retail boulevards gutted of life as suburbanites left the city to follow jobs and the shopping followed them.
Over time, downtowns began to reimage themselves as malls. Beginning in 1980, The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program was based on that very premise, organizing disparate retailers to work together on signage, opening hours, seasonal sales, and marketing.
Federal Realty took it one step further, simply buying up retail streets in places like Westport, Connecticut and Bethesda, Maryland to create a single, curated retail environment from brick pavers to street trees.
As main streets became newly invigorated environments drawing people to hang out, stroll, and by-the-way, spend money,Â shopping malls emptied out.Â Now, malls are again tracking downtown, as this New York Times article notes, by becoming more experiential places.
Though the article focuses on online competition for mall retail, one executive is quoted, â€śItâ€™s not just about shopping â€” itâ€™s multidimensional; itâ€™s a place you can just hang out and go for a stroll,â€ť he said. â€śYouâ€™re not doing that in a mall.â€ť
Sounds like main street to me!
Suburbs have always been an indicator of economic status. If you lived in them, you were wealthy enough to take on a mortgage, maintain a house and yard, and eventually own and maintain one or even two cars.
At some point, that shifted. Living in the city and maintaining a middle class lifestyle took an upper class income. Limited attractive neighborhoods and buildings cost a premium. And if local schools and servicesÂ were not up to par you needed to payÂ tuition and fees.
Now, according to Christopher Leinberger and Mariela AlfonzoÂ in the New York Times, a larger number of city neighborhoods are outstripping the suburbs in desirability and thus in per square foot value. Their recent report finds that walkable places have “become more gentrified over the past decade,” with wealthier and more educated residents. And from a list of the walkable communities examined, you won’t be surprised by that finding–Bethesda, Penn Quarter, Logan Circle, Chevy Chase Lake.
But what are the quantifaible elements of a walkable community? He and his co-author found that “the absence of a clear classification of the mix of residential, office, and retail elements that comprise walkable urban places…has been one of the most significant barriers to addressing their demand.” But demand is there–he found that in Atlanta only 35 percent of people who wanted to live in a walkable community actually did.
The characteristics the authorsÂ used to define a walkable place are somewhat Lynchian (with my comments in parens):
- aesthetics (some subjective judgement of decoration, but also views and outdoor dining)
- connectivity (in the sense of barriers)
- form (does the place feel like a place)
- pedestrian amenities (both practical and decorative)
- personal safety (judged by indicators like graffiti and litter)
- physical activity
- proximity of uses (mixed uses)
- public spaces and parks (a la Holly White–movable chairs, touchable water)
- traffic measures (not car throughput, but slowing measures–signals and calming)
(The not easily quanitifiable measure I use for a walkable place is the ice cream cone factor. Can I get a cone, and then have a nice and interesting walk while I eat it, and will there be a place to toss my napkin when I’m done. Extra points if I can ride my bike there and burn off some of those calories ! I wouldn’t last a day at Brookings.)
Once you can describe these places, their economic impact can be measured, and Leinberger finds that impact to be considerable. Even controlling for household incomes, walkable places show a higher economic performance, with premiums in office and residential rents as well as in retail sales and housing values.
From the report: “Federal, state, and local policy makers should conduct a systematic review of existing public policies that are biased against walkable development, and adopt new measures aimed at facilitating (or at least removing roadblocks to) this type of development.”
As a suburb within walking, biking, and transit distance of downtown, and one that has its own urban centers, Montgomery isÂ advantagously postioned to add value by creating car alternatives to getting downtown (I’m looking at you bikeshare) and by building up its own urban areas.
The White Flint Plan, the BRT study, the zoning rewrite, even theÂ Parks Department’s community garden programÂ are all moves that will redfineÂ how and were we live by adding more choices. With plenty of suburban single-family communitiesÂ and the preservation of the Agricultural Reserve,Â Montgomery will become a layered place, one with options and interest that all add value.
American Century types like to complain that this country doesn’t make anything anymore or if we do it’s artisanal cheese and not steel. But asÂ this article points out, that cheese or other basement productionÂ is often where the big stuff starts. How can we forget Apple’s garage beginnings.
So if economies areÂ shifting, at least in some small way, to local production and services, are our communities able to accomodate new jobs?
According to Mike Pyatok, interviewed in Better Cities and Towns, “Most planning regulations are based on the Euclidean model that separates cities into zones accommodatingÂ a single use, which true live-work is decidedly not.”
While Pyatok is pointing out that the rules of subsidized housing preclude small scale economic ventures, the article’s author, Thomas Dolan, describes a white collar version of live-work. Rather than colonizing a Starbucks, office freelancers could work in the ground floor of a live-work building where they can share services and ideas.
With economies shifting, our notion of what a good commuity is may shift as well. Will it continue to be the suburban ideal of green separation or will connections be more important?
We can extol the New England Common and the midwestern town square, but let’s be honest, America’s real public spaces are parking lots. We have turned our landscape over to the car. In his forthcoming book, “ReThinking a Lot,” MIT urban planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph estimates that there are 500 million parking spaces in the US, covering about 3,500 square miles, about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Other estimates are higher–up to 2 billion spaces; throw in Connecticut and Vermont.
That comparison is a sad statistic on our willingness to turn over civic life to the car; parking lotsÂ are an investment in space that seems to be paying out negative social, environmental,Â and economic impacts. So what to do with all this pavement?
We’ve been looking into zoning and planning opportunities to recreate crossroads and Metro area lots into livable rather than strictly drivable places. In some case, the CR ZonesÂ reduce parking requirements significantlycases and also set maximum limits.Â The zones’ parking standards varyÂ on a sliding scaleÂ based on proximity to transit services.
We even participated in Parking Day.
Parking lots really have to serve us twice–as drivers and as walkers–and they have an aesthetic. Landscaping is the most obvious way toÂ create a more nuanced environment.Â
But this article looks at even looser and more interesting approaches to civic re-use of pavement, including summer theater under the department store port cochere, sports leagues, and the ever-popular food trucks.
To make parking lots more meaningful and attractive public spaces, whether a formal landscaped design or an organic outgrowth of community activity, we have think like people rather than drivers.
Here are more pictures of parking lot re-use, and send us your photos of interesting lots–good and bad.
This article in the New York Times points out the Montgomery County is not alone in recognizing its heritage of modern architecture.
That bastion of Colonialism, New England loves its saltboxes but is moving to preserve, through easements, a legacy of modern residential architecture that includes work by Walter Gropius.