Progress depends on more ‘infrastructure of community’

Healthy places need two physical characteristics: The architecture of community and the infrastructure of community. Together they comprise the vertical and horizontal parts of cities and towns. Both are critical, but the infrastructure lays the foundation and is also the most enduring: Buildings come and go, but streets last for centuries.

Columbia Heights (Source: Sitephocus)

Columbia Heights (Source: Sitephocus)

The new urbanist movement has made significant progress through form-based codes, promoting “missing middle” housing types, and transforming the development industry. Less headway has been made on infrastructure.

This issue has to with the nature of buildings and streets. Developers are free to construct new kinds of buildings in response to market conditions, but the infrastructure that surround these buildings needs public leadership—and the support of government bureaucracies that don’t respond to the market.

The markets have radically changed in the last decade—where they used to favor drive-only, conventional suburban development (CSD) they now favor compact cities and towns. Walkable urban places—which require the infrastructure of community—carry strong premiums across many real estate products nationwide, indicating that the demand for these places is much bigger than supply. Two or three decades ago, premiums favored CSD.

Key demographic groups—especially the Millennial generation—strongly prefer the infrastructure of community. Businesses are following. A recent NAIOP study showed that 83 percent of office tenants prefer walkable urban places in cities or suburbs. Even Walmart is urbanizing its hometown, Bentonville, Arkansas, to attract the talent to keep the local economy growing and staff its headquarters and suppliers.

But the playing field still favors conventional suburban development in the vast majority of metro areas because of zoning codes and infrastructure implemented during the nation’s era of suburban expansion and automobile dominance. Form-based codes, which focus on character of place rather than separation of use, are beginning to level the playing field in many places, but they are not sufficient. The vast “infrastructure of sprawl” that is already built and the institutions that protect and favor it remain powerful barriers to change.

Infrastructure of sprawl versus community

The infrastructure of sprawl consists of big roads and intersections that support driving only. The network is poorly connected and destinations are built with plentiful parking. I call this “Big Asphalt”—an energy intensive, expensive environment that discourages regular physical activity and erodes community.

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The infrastructure of community—exemplified by street grids in older cities and towns from Gotham to Mayberry—is small-scale and connected. It supports mixed-use, walking, and bicycling. It accommodates automobiles in ways that respect human-scale public space. It supports transit, which is another key part of “the infrastructure of community.”

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Manhattan, San Francisco, Savannah, and thousands of cities and towns across America were laid out with networks of streets that were established by civic leaders as public rights of way, punctuated by parks and civic spaces. This was, simply, the way things were built in America for hundreds of years and elsewhere in the world for millennia. This infrastructure still works today and comprises the most valuable and sought-after real estate on the continent.

In the middle of the 20th century the infrastructure of community was still largely intact. Despite decades of publicly funded road and highway construction and laws that gave automobiles the rights of way, 1950 was a golden time for transportation in the US. We had built drivable thoroughfares coast to coast—think Route 66—but communities were still walkable, coherently designed, intact. That changed rapidly as Big Asphalt kicked into high gear in the latter half of the century. The transformation consisted of at least four national public initiatives:

1) The destruction of neighborhoods in cities and towns through urban renewal, highway construction, and parking requirements that leveled historic buildings.

2) The construction of increasingly bigger roads and intersections, especially in the suburbs— using new professional standards, endorsed by government, that failed to take into account even minimal needs of human-scale locomotion.

3) Subdivision and zoning laws discouraged connections of streets, funneling traffic onto large roads and dispersing parks, schools, and other traditional neighborhood features to locations that required driving.

4) The dismantling of transit systems and massive public investment in highways.

The efforts listed above were spearheaded by government, but they worked with the market. During the 20th Century, the American public wanted drive-only, conventional suburban development. The policies influenced the real estate market, too, by dismantling cities and subsidizing sprawl. Still, businesses flocked to new locations surrounded by parking lots and buyers eagerly moved to suburban subdivisions.

This combination of policy and popularity built a US infrastructure that overwhelmingly favored the infrastructure of sprawl. More than 90 percent of our metropolitan regions are built in the drivable suburban pattern. Here’s the breakdown in the Boston region, according to research by Christopher Leinberger of George Washington University.

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The infrastructure of sprawl extends to the vast majority (drivable sub-urban) of a typical region. Opportunities for urbanism are limited to a small part of the region—unless you can create an urban place from scratch. Source: Christopher Leinberger, George Washington University.

Leinberger argues that building walkable urban places could power our economy for the next generation or two, much like building suburban sprawl drove the economy in the generations after World War II. But we need the infrastructure to support it.

The infrastructure of sprawl holds our nation back economically—and in many other ways. How do we feel about spending money to improve the health care system when the government builds infrastructure that increases obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease? While the nation seeks ways to reduce carbon emissions, Big Asphalt pushes in the other direction. Our infrastructure works at cross-purposes to reducing traffic deaths, boosting upward mobility, and improving social cohesion.

The infrastructure of community is, historically, the physical manifestation of civilization. We spent the better part of a century dismantling it, and we shouldn’t be surprised if that works against progress now. Why we built Big Asphalt is clear: That’s what the market demanded at the time and the full implications of this policy were then unclear. The market is no longer demanding this and now we know better.

The right course with regards to streets and transit is clear: Level the playing field by rebuilding the infrastructure of community. The engineering profession, the state and federal Departments of Transportation, regional planning associations, and local public works officials must relearn how to build infrastructure that supports community.

Many of the changes are not technically challenging. Unlike buildings, street technology and construction has changed little over the years. Walkable, connected streets are built of the same base material, asphalt, and curbs as the larger roads of drive-only conventional suburbia. The reduced thoroughfare width and support for higher density makes the infrastructure of community relatively cheap per unit of development. Retrofit is more expensive, however, and retrofitting badly is costlier still. DOTs are often afraid to use the simplest and most direct approach—narrowing lanes with paint and using the excess pavement for other things like bike lanes, on-street parking, or even private development—despite substantial evidence that safety would rise.

New Urbanism and Big Asphalt

Starting in the 1990s, New Urbanism proposed a radically different configuration of communities than the business-as-usual pattern. In place of single-use pods, new urbanists proposed walkable neighborhoods and districts linked by multimodal transportation corridors. But this group—mostly developers, planners, and architects from the private sector at the time—had no capacity to make a dent in the infrastructure of sprawl.

They needed, at first, to prove that their vision could work. They did so mostly by building new neighborhoods and towns. They needed legal variances—including narrower streets, smaller curb radii, and more intersections—but the new towns were located on parcels that, like subdivisions, were internal to the larger arterial road networks of sprawl. Occasionally, new urbanists used subterfuge—in Seaside, Route 30A was altered without permission to slow traffic through the middle of town. New urbanists rhetorically attacked the infrastructure of sprawl, and they wrote books and manuals on street design, but this had very limited impact on Big Asphalt. Taking on DOTs was a quixotic battle that pragmatic new urbanists had little time and resources to fight.

New urbanists also built on infill sites, taking advantage of the older, nonconforming street networks from the pre-sprawl era. They worked, alongside many others, to incrementally repair the damage done to historic street grids.

In the meantime, those who build and maintain our infrastructure have grudgingly accepted the value of old-style street networks. Most states now have “complete streets” laws—calling for thoroughfares designed for all users. Newer design manuals such as the Urban Street Design Guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials and Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares by ITE and CNU give engineers credible resources for the human-scale street networks. Study after study shows these networks are safer and work well to move all kinds of traffic. But traffic engineers and road builders are still slow to change their ways.

While the federal DOT has made strides in Sustainable Communities, no state DOT has been willing to depart very far from business as usual. Few regional planning organizations, which distribute transportation funding, have made broad attempts to build the infrastructure of community or repair Big Asphalt.

DOTs have not clamored to make “complete streets” of Big Asphalt thoroughfares. When they do, it often means putting in bike lanes, sidewalks, and/or crosswalks with little change to the charater of the highway or connectivity. In a nod to walkable places, DOTs often have “context-sensitive design” (CSS) programs. New urbanist traffic engineers sometimes joke that CSS means “meet with folks until they understand why the road needs to be wider with less access, or until they stop showing up.”

There’s a political component to this issue. A battle is brewing that pits hard-core highway supporters against younger, urban-oriented legislators over transportation funds. In Wisconsin, Millennial legislators who prefer walkable neighborhoods object to enormous funds spent on highway interchanges while a “complete streets” program is killed.

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A massive Milwaukee interchange, top, and the “infrastructure of community” prior to its construction.

Research steadily supports the new urban position, contributing to the drumbeat for change. The infrastructure of sprawl was largely built based on assumptions about safety that fall apart under rigorous study. “Given the empirical evidence that favors ‘narrower is safer’, the ‘wider is safer’ approach based on intuition should be discarded once and for all,” notes a June 2015 study presented to the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers.

We need a renewed focus on the infrastructure of community. New urbanists and their allies have largely won the battle with developers, who are eager to build walkable places where businesses want to locate. Standing in the way of a strong economy, better health, sustainability, and renewed communities are technical specialists clinging to an outdated approach.

Perhaps they could respond to a stick and carrot. The stick would be pressure from businesses and constituencies that now need the infrastructure of community. The carrot would be the chance to propel our nation forward in the 21st Century.

The US “infrastructure crisis” pertaining to lack of funding for roads and bridges generates a lot discussion in Washington and state capitals. The more critical problem depends less on the amount of funding and more how we spend it: We’ve built too much “infrastructure of sprawl” and too little infrastructure that supports community.


This column was originally published here.

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