Posts Tagged ‘Urban Planning’

Scientists in Norway have just announced the discovery of a non-toxic high-tech building material with a host of economic and environmental benefits. Homes made from this substance are expected to use 10-50% less energy for heating and cooling than homes made from traditional materials.

The new substance was discovered by a team working to identify chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change.

A pilot home built in 2005 was found to absorb nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Projections show that if every house in Northern Europe was made from this material global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 5%. As a completely unexpected side benefit, the material also absorbed other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In every test the scientists ran, air quality was higher in and around the pilot home than in a traditional home.

Most amazingly, using this material was estimated to add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new home. However, based on the material’s beneficial effects, including significantly reduced energy costs for homeowners, it was projected that building with it may increase a home’s value by up to 20%.

If you were thinking this story is too good to be true, you’d only be partly right. On the one hand, there is no newly discovered health-promoting, planet-saving, dirt-cheap, inexpensive building material. In this, you were correct.

On the other hand, you can have all the benefits above, plus many more, and for the same price, by simply planting some trees next to your house. Well placed trees and shrubs can indeed save 10-50% on heating and cooling costs. Just one mature tree can indeed absorb 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with a long list of other air and soil pollutants. A single large oak, for example, can pull 40,000 gallons of water per year out of the ground and discharge it into the air, reducing flooding and soggy lawns.

For communities, the impacts are even more striking. Tree-lined streets are 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer. Pavement on these streets lasts far longer and the streets are far less likely to flood. Urban tree canopy can reduce stormwater runoff by up to 7%, and when combined with other natural landscaping, by up to 65%. This results in huge cost savings for towns and significant improvements in water quality in nearby streams, lakes and aquifers.

If the environmental and economic benefits of trees are not enough, the social benefits are equally compelling.

Studies from blighted urban Chicago housing developments show that residents who could see trees from their windows had stronger ties to their neighbors and engaged in less physical violence against their children than those without trees. These studies are striking because the residents were largely homeless families who were randomly assigned to apartments as their names came to the top of long wait lists. In other words, the people with greener views were no different to begin with than those without.

Green views have also been shown to enhance healing in hospital patients and concentration among college students. Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had the fewest behavioral problems after being in green spaces with lots of trees when compared with any indoor activities, including sports, or outdoor activities in spaces lacking greenery, such as urban parking lots. This finding held true even for children who lived in green neighborhoods.

I’m intrigued by this last bit of data. It suggests that even if a child has trees outside her window and walks past trees to get to school, it may still matter that there are trees on the playground at recess. More natural settings may have more powerful healing effects than we realize.

This fall the town of Brunswick built a new school. Where possible, efforts were made to preserve older trees, and many new trees have been planted around the property, although none next to the children’s play areas.

Recently a little friend of mine who attends the new school told her mother how much she missed the playground at her old school. So they returned for a visit to the empty little playground, nestled into a grove of old pine trees.

With a huge smile on her face, the girl roamed about the play structures, sliding down slides, ducking under hideouts, trying out the swings. Many of these same features were present at the new space, so the mother asked her daughter what she’d missed so much.

It’s the trees, she replied.

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One day this winter I was walking down Maine Street in Brunswick, my two children trailing absentmindedly behind me, when I was suddenly filled with a distinct sense of unease. I waited for my kids to catch up, took one in each hand, and contemplated the source of my disquiet: the new Station Avenue street crossing.

A year ago, this spot marked the edge of a large abandoned swath of downtown land, which, depending on your mood, or perhaps your age, was either an unsightly glass-sharded blemish or a beckoning plot of wildflowers and train tracks. Over the past year this lot has transformed into the buildings and sidewalks of the Maine Street Station development.

Cutting through the development, and joining Maine and Union Streets, is a crisp new side street called Station Avenue. This street must be crossed by anyone walking into or out of downtown along the west side of Maine Street.

What set off my Mommy radar as I strolled along on that winter day? What was the problem with this innocuous little street, its sassy striped crosswalk signaling to all the rights of the pedestrian over the motor vehicle? The problem was that the street was designed primarily to make the motor vehicle happy, not the pedestrian.

Let me explain. The corners of intersections are not sharp, like a piece of paper; they are always curved. These curves enable vehicles, especially those turning right, to turn more quickly. They also help larger trucks and busses avoid riding up over the sidewalk or crossing into another traffic lane.

Yet, curved corners have some drawbacks. In allowing faster speeds, they increase the likelihood of cars hitting people in the crosswalk. Further, even small increases in vehicle speeds cause significant increases in severity of injuries to pedestrians in the case of an accident.

Large curves also dramatically increase crossing distances for pedestrians. Indeed, the curve designs found on many city streets can result in a doubling of street width at the crosswalk.

The problem, then, with Station Avenue, is that the curve on the downtown side of the intersection is disturbingly large. This design resulted from the need for big vehicles, such as delivery trucks, to be able to safely turn right off Maine Street.

But the large curve also means that smaller vehicles can fly around the corner with hardly a brush on the brakes. It is the kind of intersection that makes pedestrians feel unsafe. Walkers, especially those with children in tow, are highly tuned to the structural aspects that control traffic speed and sight lines. They may not be able to articulate the sources of their discomfort, but they know when to call their kids closer. I find it troubling that a new street on a major walking route into downtown is not comfortable for pedestrians to cross.

I don’t blame the town; they are trying as hard as they can to balance the needs of pedestrians with the needs of vehicles. Brunswick’s downtown exemplifies many design elements that make people on foot feel happy, welcome, and safe. The sidewalks are wide, they’re often buffered from the street by trees, the storefronts are close to the sidewalks (not separated from foot traffic by parking lots), and there are center islands along Maine Street which make it easier to cross.

The town is operating, with the best intentions, under a set of constraints that are as much the impositions of culture as of street design standards. We all want to park close to our destinations, we all want emergency vehicles to have easy access, we all want delivery trucks to supply our stores, we all want roads that are wide enough and fast enough to eliminate traffic jams.

Yet, we act as if these desires have no costs. The reality is that what is good for us when we’re behind the wheel is not usually good for us when we’re on foot. Entire books have been written about why designing for walkers is critically important to quality of life in urban neighborhoods, but I will offer just a few enticing tidbits here.

Canadian researchers Ray Tomalty and Murtaza Haider found that independent of age or income level, folks who lived in walkable areas weighed an average of seven pounds less than those who didn’t live in such areas. They also walked and biked more, liked their communities better, and interacted more with their neighbors.

Economist Joe Cortright, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, found that very small differences in a community’s walkability resulted in very large differences in home values, sometimes on the order of tens of thousands of dollars. He factored out the effects of income, distance to downtown, nearby job availability, and house size.

It may seem as if there are no alternatives to designing for vehicles (after all, who could argue with the fact that trucks need to turn right onto Station Avenue?) but there are. Cities around the world are experimenting with reducing, slowing, and sometimes even eliminating vehicle traffic.

Not surprisingly car-free places are universally beloved: think of Disney World, of bustling pedestrian malls from Boulder to Sacramento, of old city centers such as Copenhagen and Jerusalem, and of watery sanctuaries like Venice and Monhegan Island.

Improving conditions for walking and biking is imperative as we struggle to reduce our use of fossil fuels. However, we won’t be able to see the full range of solutions until we fully see the costs of designing for cars and the benefits of designing for people. If the Station Avenue crossing is the best we can build when we follow the rules, it might be time to change the rules.

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This is a tale of a recent Thursday evening in the small town of Brunswick, Maine, involving 3 families, 6 parents, 5 children, 1 car, 1 airplane, 8 bicycles, 2 soccer practices, 1 choir rehearsal, and 2 school meetings.  Your patience is kindly requested.


First, prior to all the commotion, one parent conveniently departs for Spain (that takes care of the airplane).  Here’s what happened to the rest of us.  At about 4:45 PM, Mom #1 sets out by bike with her Kids (1a and 1b) for Soccer Practices 1 and 2, both starting at 5:00, on different fields.  Kid 1a is dropped off at the house of Family 2, whose Kid (2a) is on the same soccer team.  Mom 1 continues with Kid 1b to Practice 1.


Shortly thereafter, Mom 2 sets out by bike with Kids 1a and 2a for Practice 2, where they meet Dad 1, arriving by car, who is coaching said practice with Mom 2.  At the same time, Dad 3, who is coaching Practice 1, arrives at Field 1 by tandem bike with  his Kid (3a).


At 5:45 Mom 1 bikes from Field 2 to Field 1, swaps her bike for Dad 1’s car, and drives to school for Meetings 1 and 2, starting at 6:00 and 6:30 respectively.  Mom 3 arrives at Practice 2 by bike with Preschooler 3b, leaving him with Dad 3 and continuing on to Meeting 1.  Mom 2 leaves Practice 2 early and bikes up to school for Meetings 1 and 2.  


When both Practices end at 6:00, Dad 3 takes Kids 3a, 3b, and 1b to Field 2 to return Kid 1b to Dad 1.  Dad 1 heads home by bike with Kids 1a, 1b and also Kid 2a, who he drops off at Choir on the way.  Because it is the first day of Choir, Mom 2 leaves Meetings 1 and 2 for a few minutes to bike over and make sure Kid 2a is correctly registered.  


Here is the secret to how all this was possible (without a transporter).  Both soccer fields, the school, the houses of each of the three families, the work place of two of the parents, and the choir rehearsal are all less than 2 miles apart.  Each transition was accomplished in a matter of minutes.  Two of the three families had only one car and thus depended on their bikes; all three of the families depended on each other.


The few short hours in which all this activity took place were a celebration of living in a compact community with important services centrally located and blended together with residential neighborhoods.  Before the convenience of our cars won us over, heart and soul, there was little choice but to have popular destinations near one another.  The school, library, church, hair salon, and town office were all clustered fairly closely.  Shopkeepers lived above their stores.  Kids walked to school.


The car made sprawl possible, and sprawl we did, like wild strawberries in the garden.  In the last 17 years, of the two most populous towns in mid-coast Maine, one grew a small amount (Brunswick, by 4%) and one shrank (Bath, by 8%).  The more rural towns of Phippsburg, Bowdoinham and Bowdoin saw population increases of 19% to 33% (U.S. Census).  


But sprawl is problematic for individual families, larger communities and the environment.  Between 1970 and 1995 Maine spent $338 million on building new schools and additions in fast-growing rural areas, all while the number of school-aged kids in the state dropped by 27,000.  The Maine State Planning Office also reports that it is far more expensive to provide services to a rural family than to an urban family because of the need for more roads, extending sewer and water lines, road maintenance, new schools, and longer bus trips (think increased state, local, and federal taxes).


For families, many are lured to the country by the promise of lower property taxes.  The irony is that while taxes may be lower, many other costs go up, such as transportation and home insurance (which often increases with distance from a fire station).  When added up, these other costs are likely to make country life more expensive than town life.


Transportation costs alone are often far more than most people estimate.  Indeed, the average annual cost of car ownership in the U.S. is approximately $7,000 per year, when you factor in the cost of the car, interest, maintenance, fuel, insurance, and other fees (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  


The environmental side-effects of sprawl are similarly large: polluted air and water, fragmented wildlife habitat, as well as loss of wetlands, farmland and forest.  Transportation is again one of the biggest culprits.  On a per capita basis, residents of Manhattan create a fraction of the air pollution and climate-changing emissions of the average American – largely because 82% of them commute by train, bus, bike or on foot.


Most ironic of all is that almost half the folks buying homes in rural and suburban Maine would have seriously considered moving into walkable, compact, urban neighborhoods, if such housing had been available and affordable (1999 Planning Office study).  A combination of forces, including aggressive marketing, outdated zoning  regulations, and backwards tax incentives, have led to most new housing occurring in car-dependent, residential-only developments on rural land.  Given the high economic and environmental costs of sprawl, it makes good sense to update zoning and change tax incentives to provide alternatives for those who would rather be enjoying the high quality of life in town.  


Despite the craziness of my recent Thursday night, it was oddly pleasant.  Kids and parents spent a lot of time outside on a sweet September evening and families leaned on each other to solve problems – a type of community strength that grows easily through the cracks in the pavement of our traditional downtowns.

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