Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mixed Uses as Community-Building Devices

                  Looking around Phoenix, one must admire much of our urban planning; but that doesn’t change the fact that severe segregation of housing and purveyors of goods and services doesn’t always serve the citizens well.  For openers, it condemns us to use cars for transport to pick up everyday household consumer items.  The idea, I suppose, is that grocers, pharmacies and small restaurants are untidy and noisy, so keep them well away from single family housing subdivisions.  (Apartment dwellers, well, for them noisy and untidy is less consequential, it would seem from land planning policy.)  Let’s be clear; some retail uses are untidy and noisy.  So what?  Is a little additional ambient noise that devastating to the human psyche?  If it is, then single family residents should all be completely insane, if I take as the norm the magnitude of home remodeling with power tools occurring in my neighborhood in just the last 3 years.  And a trash-compactor compressing sound is shorter in duration than noise made by the 5 guys using leaf-blowers in the residential yards on our street every week, usually before the hour of 8 a.m.
                  Our retail world has created, together with strip centers and every-corner pharmacies, lifestyle centers of 100,000 square feet of space so that one-stop shopping is possible when we cruise over to it, or to the mall, in our horseless carriages.  Walking to the store is eliminated; so our personal energy is being saved for what?-personal consumption?  Now of course we can’t walk, due to the too-bloody high temperatures of our 7-month summers.  So we assume.  Would our assumptions change if the grocer or other retailer was only ¼ mile away, accessible by a shade-tree lined walk or bicycle path?  Certainly we can’t spend money on a bicycle lane because we need to pave more lanes to accelerate vehicular traffic.  Naturally we can’t invest in street trees - they’ll just die on their sidewalk homes, right?  Isn’t it a wee bit mysterious that we cannot irrigate streetside trees when our city water lines are beneath the very same streets? – nah, there’s some justification of cost-prohibition I’m not seeing.

                  Like all insurmountable planning problems, the genuine issue is that we’ve not yet committed the time and other resources to devise the appropriate solutions, even in our sort-of hostile climatic environment.  Here’s a thought.  What would be the impact of allowing at every light rail Phoenix station, within 250 linear feet of the platforms, a grocery store of no more than 20,000 square feet that is focused on handling the needs of the surrounding dwellers within a quarter mile radius – including the need not to be awakened by deliveries or trash pickup before 8 a.m.?  What would happen if we allowed, as a matter of right (no NIMBY input, thanks), a restaurant or coffee shop or bar, with reasonable closing hours and restrictions on amplified sound, in such locations?  In other words, what is the effect of allowing neighbors to shop, eat or drink right in convenient neighborhood places that do not require an automobile to reach?  No doubt at first, among the none-too-pleased, would number the supermarket and pharmacy chains – but what would be the public’s reaction?  Is “buying local” a pipe dream for anywhere but the “Old World” villages of Europe, South America and Asia?  The New Urbanists don’t believe so, but they are building their towns as they roll out their ideas.  It’s easier, admittedly, when you get to start Utopia from scratch.

                  Seriously, though, what about retrofitting cities like Phoenix with local establishments where you can get to know your grocer and your pharmacist and hairdresser?  Phoenix has a marvelous PUD ordinance that can flex to allow notions of mixed use in denser-populated vicinities already afflicted by greater ambient noise from sources like traffic or light rail whistles.  I say, let mixed uses rip!  Don’t such decisions boil down, eventually, to the issue of political will?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Town Crier – One Voice for Neighborhood "Scale"

I recently traveled in France for 3 weeks by car, bus, train, light rail, subway and Air France, crossing the country in a weird figure-8 pattern.  Toward the end of our sojourn, we nearly got ensnared in the public transportation strike (meticulously and randomly engineered), so I hunkered down with my bride in a burg near the de Gaulle airport called Roissy-en-France.  The town’s chief stock in trade is hospitality to the de Gaulle International traveler, since there are nearly 5,000 hotel rooms in 22 hotels, and the huge majority of the restaurant seats, located within a mile’s radius of the town center.  I expected the town would have the sterile feel of a service community like the area around Disneyland (Buena Park), with no reference point for civic pride other than in accumulating riches generated by tourist dollars.  Mine was a grossly mistaken belief; I realized after touring the streets, shops and a local restaurant for a few hours that I would enjoy staying in Roissy for a time even if the airport weren’t convenient, as it had genuine local charm.  In the process, I received a useful education on how urban planning can overcome a single economic driver.

                  The hotels are all along a single strip of highway, along either side; I was going to use the word “ghetto,” but truthfully, stripping away the glitz, staggering building heights and hot lights, it could have been the Las Vegas Strip.  Focusing all the tourist auto and bus traffic along the sides of a single node enabled the town center to celebrate a normal French village ambience for Roissy’s citizens, which included:

Many wonderfully-landscaped open spaces and urban parks (especially a central park with curvilinear walkways that skirted the town’s basilica) spaced apart but easily accessible from the edges of the town;

Classic two story buildings that fronted the local streets with few front-yard setbacks from the sidewalks, and in many cases no setbacks at all;

A ruined Chateau, tastefully honored as an historic and cultural icon of the community;

Signage throughout the historic district that contrasted the current appearance of the structures with their appearance 75-100 years ago, displayed on triangular, decorative sign panels;

Outdoor markets on two sides of the Place du Pays de France, together with the post office and the ubiquitous boulangerie;

One-car garages and ample scattered public parking lots with lots of vegetation, along with a city bus line down the two major commercial streets;

Mixed use buildings so that locals can live in close proximity to where they work and shop, making a second (or additional) four-wheeled vehicle largely redundant;

A small but vibrant indoor community and cultural center and an outdoor, band-sized gazebo.

                  In short, the place had the human, pedestrian scale you crave in a town one calls home despite the presence of a lot of foreign travelers confining themselves to their three and four-star ranked hotels if they lack the curiosity to look around.  It truly was a delightful community with many amenities you expect to see only in larger towns or cities – and perhaps this was the contribution Roissy exacts from its visitors in the form of a bed tax on its hotels (one Euro per person per room night).  Now, I’m a Francophile but not a crazed land-use fanatic that thinks that whatever is delightful in a small French village is translatable into any setting in a much larger community and in whatever culture one is dealing with.  That confessed, it does seem that there are some features of smaller European town life that may be adaptable to American cities that are worth thinking about.

No, we cannot knock down our modern structures and start building cobblestone streets around which packed-in, wheezy buildings made of stone loosely joined with mortar will be assembled.  But there are some things we do in American cities that seem to make little sense if an atmosphere of community is desirable, and I will talk about a few of those land use features in the next couple of posts.  The philosophical initial inquiry is if community is truly desirable on this side of the Atlantic.  The New Urbanism movement in this nation suggests that some Americans think that “less may be more” when it comes to boulevards, use of automobiles as primary transportation, scale of neighborhoods and so on.  “Vibrant,” one the one hand, and “vast” or “immense” are not synonymous concepts, as anyone visiting a French plein aire marketplace knows and Americans meeting one another in periodic farmer’s markets are discovering.  It may be worth mulling over how to “tweak” a few land planning conventions to try to restore community pride in places and create new public spaces for neighborhood environments in the U.S.A.