Attention Houston-based readers of Quarter Mile Smile. You are in for a real treat. Professor Philip Bess from the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture will be in Houston to give a lecture at the University of Saint Thomas at 7:00pm this Thursday, April 23rd. You may recognize his name from a few articles posted in the Quarter Mile Smile Reading Room. Of note, he authored a very good two-part article in Public Discourse that makes an excellent case for urbanism and discloses some of the issues with sprawl. If you can find time in your schedule to attend this lecture, you will enjoy it. It is free and open to the public.
Let’s Make an Urban Fabric Pizza: Functional vs. Form Based Zoning
You’ve met them, those “food separatists” that cannot stand for one item on their dinner plate to touch another. A random pea rolling into the mashed potatoes is greeted with a look of distain, and gravy or any sort of escaped sauce that made its way off the meat might be the cause of apoplexy. Likely one of them was the inventor of the divided plate of the sort one sometimes sees in school cafeterias. A plate that keeps order, and peas in their proper place.
There are others that take relish in the unplanned and accidental combination of flavors that may take place during the course of a meal; who even actively engage in food combining, dropping leaves of their salad into their spaghetti and swirling peas into their mashed potatoes just to see what flavors might result. Regardless of whether you are a food separatist, a food combiner, or stand neutral on the subject, all will likely come to complete agreement in the case of a pizza. Who in their right mind, or even addled mind, would ask for a deconstructed pizza?
Pizza is defined by its particular combination of crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings. Even the pizzas of experimental cuisine adhere to this basic structure even if they swap out tomato sauce for pesto or mozzarella for goat cheese. If the crust were naked, the sauce, and meats or veggies were in a separate bowl, and the cheese melted on a separate plate, we would not find ourselves tempted to eat it. Or at the very least, we wouldn’t call it a pizza.
Pizza as Metaphor
It is for this reason, precisely because of the necessary mixing and combining that goes into a pizza, that famed architect and urban planner Leon Krier (often credited as the intellectual god father of the New Urbanist movement) has elevated the pizza from mere restaurant item to the official food mascot of New Urbanism. Krier makes use of the pizza to argue against use-based zoning.
While we see a deconstructed pizza as ridiculous and unappetizing, we have gone to great lengths to create deconstructed places. Before the advent of the car, towns and cities were created in such a way that the majority of daily needs could be met on foot. Work, groceries, clothing, schools, libraries, doctor’s offices, parks, playgrounds, and retail establishments were all within a 10 minute walk or within an easy street car ride. Large format, single family homes were down the road from duplexes and apartments.
Then along came use-based zoning. No longer could a corner store or neighborhood pub occupy the end of a residential block. Retail establishments needed to be grouped with other retail establishments. Office buildings and places of work were separated with other office buildings and places of work, so on and so forth. This grand sorting out of places by function was only made possible by the car. And while many people do have cars, this type of planning removed the choice and made having a car a necessity for many.
The Degradation of the Pedestrian Realm
The result on the visual quality of the pedestrian realm was not neutral. As the necessities of life became unreachable by foot, there was then no need to create retail and commercial buildings that had sidewalk appeal designed to draw in pedestrians to their place of business. So the loss of a multitude of functions within a walkable sphere also led to the degradation of the pedestrian realm itself. (See my Speed of Christmas post).
Zoning Based on use vs Zoning Based on Form
Often those who promote the creation of walkable places promote form-based code as a preferable alternative to use-based zoning. The proponents of walkability understand, just as the promoters of use-based zoning, that it does not work to have a big box store with a vast expanse of asphalt parking lot located next to a single-family home. But instead of prescribing against retail stores next to homes, form based codes prescribe the size that a building can be. They limit things like the height, width, length, and set-back and leave the use up to the owner. Since a Walmart cannot fit inside the equivalent of a three story brownstone, the effect is that Walmarts are not located next to houses, whereas, a small store or coffee shop could be.
Walkable Places are More Attractive Places. More Attractive Places Increase Property Values
By allowing a mixture of uses to flourish within a neighborhood, walkability becomes possible again as people have places to walk to. As people begin walking to places, businesses will take more care with their exteriors. And as a street becomes more attractive, it is not just the pedestrians that benefit. Andrew Burlson, a real estate developer and consultant with The Fourth Environment shows how in his presentation on the Net Attraction Framework that as a place becomes more attractive, it increases the property values for buildings and homes located adjacent to those attractive places.
Walkable Places Help Reduce Traffic and Infrastructure Costs
When every errand does not require a car, traffic volume decreases. Thus every car trip that is replaced by a pedestrian trip makes life more pleasant for those who still need to travel a greater distance by car. It also reduces the wear and tear on the roads. You would think by how enthusiastically we lay new roads and widen highways that they must be cheap to build and maintain, that perhaps cities and counties are getting a volume discount on the materials. But the truth is, roads are expensive. Expensive to lay and expensive to maintain. Thus creating more walkable places not only alleviates stress on traffic during peak times, but also decreases the burden on our roads.
So, let’s advocate for pizza and everyone can benefit, even those who prefer spaghetti!
Much has been written on the logic of form-based zoning and the repercussions of use-based zoning. See:
The Speed of Christmas: A Christmas Reflection
Despite what department store displays and online sale advertisements may suggest, the official season of Christmas begins on December 25th. It was for this reason I supposed this would be a good time for a Christmas post. And of course what could be more Christmassy than thinking about walkability? Well, plenty of things might be, but that does not mean we cannot find a perfectly good Christmas reflection in the topic. After all, during the time that Mary and Joseph happened upon the quaint little village of Bethlehem and found themselves in what would become the most significant stable in human history, they did not arrive by car or plane or train, but rather by donkey and on foot. The soon-to-arrive magi from the East traveled similarly.
Walkability and Main Street protagonists often speak about the connection between the way we design our commercial buildings and the mode of transit and speed we employ to approach those buildings. Steer off the highway on your holiday journey cross state lines to visit relatives in any one of a number of brown-sign designated “historic downtowns,” and it will not matter if the area is in Ohio, Texas, California, or New Jersey, these historic downtowns will all have similar elements. They will be composed of one, two, or three-story buildings, with modest set-backs from the sidewalk, plenty of on-street parking (parallel or angled) and wonderfully artful signs that either swing in the wind beneath colorful awnings or invitingly jut out from the sides of brick, stone, or wood buildings that have stood the test of time by virtue of the durability of their construction materials, the commonsense design adapted for the local climate, and the fact that the buildings themselves were lovable enough to inspire preservation.
A commercial building has a purpose distinct from that of a residence. In addition to being a pleasant place to be, a commercial building and its practical adornment (signage, awnings, and display windows) must serve to draw customers into its confines and then provide a pleasing enough space with which to encourage commerce. The charming downtowns of our historic past were constructed when customers travelled at much slower speeds than we do today. Customers arrived on foot, bicycle, horse, or perhaps even a Model T (which topped out at 45 mph, but was rarely driven at that speed). It is well known that the faster a vehicle is traveling, the larger the sign must be to do the work of drawing in customers. The modestly-sized signage typical of our historic downtowns would not stand a chance along a four-lane wide 45 mph road, let alone a highway. Potential customers would whiz by, not seeing the sign in time to react. Thus as we shifted to a more auto-centric society and paved fast connections between cities and states, commercial buildings and signage necessarily changed.
You can see this evolution along the storied and much-beloved old Route 66 (later to be replaced by wider, faster highways). As the cars got faster, the signs became larger, and the use of neon employed to draw customers in from further away. The buildings themselves often became a little larger and a bit more spread apart.
Drive along the highway of any major American city today, and you will be accosted by towering signs, taller than the buildings, blaring with bright lights and colors the names of their establishments, all clamoring to be seen at 65-70 miles per hour. As for the buildings themselves, there is often nothing beautiful or interesting about them, since it is not the beauty of the building, but merely the loudness of the sign, that is doing the job of drawing prospective customers inside. Thus the number and size of such signs has grown in size, competing with each other in garishness to be noticed, as the speed of travel has increased. The concession to the car is complete. When you pull off the highway, you are not greeted by an inviting storefront, but a sea of asphalt and white lines. And the shopping experience, rather than being a relaxed amble along a row of shops on Main Street, is often a fevered, fluorescent-lit experience.
It is not to say that today we cannot find new construction that matches the scale of historic downtowns. We do. We just rarely find them along highways or wide-laned roads. We find them along 20-25 mile per hour roads or tree-lined boulevards. Thus, as we endeavor to restore or create more walkable places, we will also be creating places that are by their very nature a little less rushed. And this may indeed be a very good thing. It often feels that we live our lives at the speed of highways. The reason is that we have designed our built environment to facilitate those speeds.
The season of Advent, a quiet contemplative time of waiting leading up to the glorious event that is the birth of Christ is experienced by many as a flurry of work-related Christmas parties, a frenzied hopping from physical or virtual place in search of the perfect gifts and in maddeningly long grocery store lines. Perhaps it is not only our places that should be designed at the speed of the pedestrian, perhaps so too should be our lives. The two are connected.
To read more about the effects of speed on commercial architecture and signage, check Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture (title also listed in the reading room). To learn more about the common elements of historic walkable downtown commercial buildings, see The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture and Anatomy of Main Street.
Welcome to Quarter Mile Smile
by Tamara Nicholl-Smith
Every morning, Monday thru Friday, I walk out my front door, descend the stairs to the parking garage beneath my Houston condo complex, and use my automatic clicker to unlock my black Hyundai Elantra with black leather interior and blue-lit dials. After an old fashioned turn of the key in the ignition, I emerge from below onto the street as if emerging out of the bat cave. From there it is a short drive to one of Houston’s many major highways.
When I maneuver my modest little car from the on-ramp onto nearby Highway 288, I am no longer merely a commuter; rather, I am transformed instantly into a competitor with thousands of others in a massive video game being played with very serious stakes. The aim of the game, in my case, is to make it the 20.8 miles from my home to my office in the Houston Ship Channel Region alive, and if all goes well, relatively undamaged, except for some seriously frayed nerves.
The obstacles and dangers are many. Cars wiz by like enemy missiles.. Erratic vehicles weave in and out of lanes; drivers repeatedly insist on traveling in my blind spot; trucks kick up rocks and other projectile objects and aims them at my windshield; and a on a regular basis vehicles of all sizes attempt to merge into my exact place on the road. My controls in this great video game are my steering wheel, accelerator pedal, break, and horn.
Along the way, I am reminded by a series of Texas Department of Transportation LED billboards, of how many have lost this game this year and given their lives over to the Texas freeways. It seems as though I am late at least one day every week because of a major wreck blocking one or more lanes of traffic. My first instinct is to be grumpy; my second is to realize that the wreck involved someone’s wife, husband, grandfather, grandmother, child, or best friend, a person that may now be gone to us forever.
And I then think, is it worth it? The daily freeway commute is a game of odds. It is not a matter of if someone will be hurt, but when, and what are the odds it will be me? I make the trek for now because I believe I am well placed in my current position. But I question whether I am not a bit touched in the head. I live within five miles of hundreds of jobs for which I am qualified, but I choose to join so many of my fellow Houstonians in the great, dangerous “freeway commuter game” each day.
Libertarians of a certain stripe extol the virtues of an auto-centric transportation infrastructure, declaring: “We Texans love our cars. We want to travel where we want to travel when we want to travel. We do not want to be beholden to a schedule.” I am not one to argue that we do away with freeways, roads, or even cars. But I will argue for options: options which can only come to us through changes both in individual behavior and in the way we build our cities and plan our infrastructure.
The freedom being extolled is a bit of an illusion anyway, given that there are certain times of the day when you can’t really get anywhere very quickly — not even ten yards in ten minutes. And as 5,000 people a month move to the greater Houston area, the reality behind the illusion is becoming clearer to anyone paying attention. How free is one’s movement when a trip that used to only take 10 minutes now takes 30? How many people, when given the option, would choose to spend one to two hours of their day in their car traveling to and from work (even bolstered by the very best of audio books) instead of spending that time relating to their family and friends, or volunteering in their communities for causes they deeply believe in? Very few, I would imagine.
And how truly unbound by schedule are commuters anyway? There is a reason for rush hour. Our schedules may not be set by a train or bus time table, but it often is set by our respective employers who command a schedule that drags us from our beds and out into the video game at a particular time each day. We each make a rational decision to go to and from work each day, but the sum total of all those “rational” decisions is an utterly irrational result: gridlock. None of us can get home for hours.
I am not one to rant without solutions, but I am also not so naïve as to imagine that at any time in the near future my city, famous for and proud of its spaghetti-like tangle of freeways and miles of low-density housing, is likely to transform itself into one noted for its high-quality, ever-present public transit system.
But what of those who would not choose the status quo? What of those who cannot drive at due to physical or financial inability? Should those citizens not be presented with another option? Do they not “rate” as people who also should have freedom, the same sort of freedom libertarians in their cars claim for themselves, all the while expecting everyone else to pay public money for wider highways to support that “right”?
Philip Bess, a professor of urban design a the Notre Dame School of Architecture argues in one of the essays I link to on this blog that we should consider it an obligation to provide as an option walkable, mixed-use, socio-economically diverse neighborhoods within which the majority of daily activities can be reached within a ten minute walk. Combine building patterns of this sort with the sort of well-placed transit options espoused by supporters of transit-oriented development, and we will have gone a long way to relieving pressure on our auto and truck-centric infrastructure and have moved to a more socially just distribution of options.
What of the behavior side? Those who study these matters say that a substantial portion of the congestion on the roads during rush hour consists of people running errands that have nothing to do with commuting to work or school. Perhaps a simple shift of the timing of errand-running might help, but the structural solution of providing for those needs in close proximity to residences would also be beneficial.
Technology should also have made possible many more options than we currently seem to be taking advantage of. With laptops, the internet, an easy access to video chat programs such as Skype, Face Time, and Google hangouts, it seems as though there should be less demand for people to be physically present every day of the working week at their offices. Granted, not all jobs can be done remotely. A cashier cannot “dial-in” to his or her job, nor can a stocker in a grocery store, a security guard, or a chef in a restaurant. Working remotely is mainly possible for office workers like me. Perhaps allowing just a day or two a week working from home would relieve stress on the roads (and in workers) without costing any productivity.
How many corporations with multiple locations have employees that live near one location, but whose job requires them to report to a much further location? How much of this movement is strictly necessary? How many companies could provide drop-in spots for employees to work a day or two a week from a location closer to their homes?
If Houston, and places like it, are to avoid the fate of Los Angeles, or even worse, Mexico City, it will be necessary to:
- Change the way we build our cities;
- Incorporate alternative modes of travel into our infrastructure (transit, cycling, walking);
- Come up with ways to motivate changes to our behavior and the way our work week is structured.
Essays and articles on this blog are meant to suggest ways in which we might begin to implement ideas to meet these goals. Future posts will link to or discuss solutions from the perspective of policy, design, behavior change, and high and low-tech innovation. While this project is a work in progress, already on this site you will find a wealth of resources:
- The Fellow Travelers page provides a listing of groups that have done serious hiking, research and projects related to creating quality places.
- The Reading Room links to articles and books that provide solid theoretical foundation, as well as examples and inspiration.
- If you need a practitioner, check out the Really Good Architects
We will be building out the content on all these pages, so check back often.
The inspiration for this blog is two-fold:
- To solve problems that arise from the way we currently build and get around in our cities;
- To create places that delight, nourish, and provide the context for us to be happy
Thus: The Quarter Mile (five minute walk) Smile!