New Urbanism’s Mecca Is 25

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In 2002, when he was still the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening invited a handful of Smart Growth leaders from around the country to join him for a three-day talk fest at Seaside, the famous Florida Gulf Coast resort community that served as the weirdly perfect set of the 1998 Jim Carrey film, The Truman Show. I attended the weekend, serving as the message and media guy for a gathering that also included Andres Duany, the architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, Ron Sims, the executive of King County, Washington, Harriet Tregoning of the Maryland Planning Office, Don Chen of Smart Growth America, Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink in Oakland, and Scott Bernstein, the founder and resident guru of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

The conversation generally focused on how to collaborate in order to build a more secure and visible national movement around the principles and values of Smart Growth. We spent the days in an airy, light-filled, cream pastel drawing room on the second floor of a stunning Seaside home. It was early winter, but every day the sun shined warm and welcoming through arched windows. I swam in a pool as Caribbean clear and refreshing as a beach in Aruba. We strolled narrow streets shaded by palms and one breathtaking house after another. 

The setting encouraged fulsome discussion that focused on design and policy. How could we help communities get more comfortable with that marriage? When you put that many energetic activists of national stature in one room, and get them to relax as Seaside did, the atmospheric molecules vibrate differently. I had the clear sense that regardless of what came out of the intimate conference (and nothing really did) the days spent in active dialogue reflected the quickening intellectual energy that Smart Growth was generating across the country. A mode shift was underway. Some of the people who’d helped to make it happen had a rare three days to share ideas. 

The beautiful place where the event occurred served its part by proving that a new community, well-designed and carefully constructed, adds its measure of value to the human experience. Had the weekend unfolded in a windowless room in an edge city Marriott, nothing like the rich experience we all enjoyed could have occurred.

This year Seaside marks its 25th anniversary, and the value of its homes and property are rising at a rate much faster than conventional Gulf Coast developments. It has grown more beautiful with age, and more durable. That is true in other New Urbanist communities, including The New Neighborhood in Empire, Michigan, near where I live. The New Neighborhood is an extension of Empire’s old neighborhoods, a short walk from the Lake Michigan shoreline. I learned this week that the New Neighborhood is selling more affordable lots and homes than any other development in Leelanau County. The New Neighborhood is one of a number of New Urbanist developments in this cold and snowy region of northern Michigan. The fact that they exist at all owes almost everything to Seaside’s successful design, construction, and marketing of a new idea in a warm, blue, and sunny place more than two decades and 1,000 miles away. 

  

Flip: Google and Congestion

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This fourth installment of Flip, which tracks keen new convergences between urban affairs and new media technology, was suggested by Joe Mielke, an IT professional and a colleague at the Michigan Land Use Institute. It’s Google’s recently introduced tool to track  urban congestion in real time, and available now in New York. Click the traffic link on the top right of the page.

The applications for this tool are immeasurable. If you’re swinging up the New Jersey Thruway from D.C. it’s possible now to call this tool up on your Blackberry. Lincoln Tunnel looks tight? Try the Holland or the GW Bridge. Better yet, you’re in Philadelphia and need to get to New York. Traffic is tough. Take Amtrak out of 30th Street Station. 

I’m looking longer term. The same technology that enables Google to measure traffic flow over such a large region could also be applied to new construction permits, and new homes and businesses actually built. The GIS information systems already provide the software capacity. Data is available in many jurisdictions on a weekly and monthly basis. Google could tie the systems and data together to give residents an accurate picture of development patterns over time. Each new building could be represented by a tiny blue dot that appears with every permit approval. Over time the various constellations of dots would indicate the speed, location, and density of new development, a more graphic and urgent picture in most cases than residents can obtain by just looking around.

Wonder why traffic is heavy and getting worse? It’s not just the number of vehicles. It’s where they come from. Google’s creativity and technical capacity could add a new narrative that prompts greater public insight into the where, how, and why of development trends and of traffic.

Great Western Train Race, C’mon Michigan

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More on that train race out west that I wrote about earlier this month. Metro, the transit agency in Phoenix, is asking the state for $1.7 billion to accelerate construction on the 57-mile light rail system that is being built, and to add more than 20 new miles to the system by 2027. This according to the Arizona Republic.

That’s the very same strategy that Salt Lake City voters approved in November when they raised the sales tax to speed up construction and add new lines to a 45-mile light rail system, and an 88-mile commuter rail network. The $3.1 billion system is so popular that suburbs that fought its development are clamoring to organize constituents and build even more train lines (see pix.)

In both places, just as here in Michigan, there was plenty of skepticism about the value of light rail, whether people would make the mode shift from their cars to a train, and whether the investment would pay economic dividends. And in both western cities the answers are that trains are more popular than anticipated, and are encouraging $billions in new housing, retail, office, and recreational investments. As an icon of a region’s will to succeed as an energy efficient, environmentally-conscious, modern, and prosperous place, rail rapid transit has few equals.

Look at Utah: low unemployment, rising job numbers and incomes, well-educated workforce, mecca for young people, vibrant, and building the West’s second largest regional rail system next to Denver’s.

Look at Michigan: nation’s highest unemployment, rapidly diminishing job numbers and personal income, workforce not yet convinced that college degrees are worth the trouble, treats its brightest young people as a primary export, troubled spiritually, and still arguing about whether rail transit has a place.

In an interview on Michigan Radio earlier this month, Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm said that public transit, and especially trains, were a “necessary” investment for the state to make to be competitive in the global economy. A starter line that links Ann Arbor with Detroit, and the suburbs in between, is now teed up for regional and state approval. There is $100 million in federal funding to complete the engineering and design stages and start construction. The  familiar crticisms about cost, popularity, wise investment and the like surround the proposal. The typical critics — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, House Republican Leader Craig DeRoche among others — have aligned to derail the idea.       

But for the first time in years, there also is a political opening that makes sense. Gov. Granholm says she wants more transit. And state Representative Marie Donigan, a Democrat of Royal Oak, was appointed chair of the new House Public Transit Subcommittee. Marie is southeast Michigan’s most prominent elected transit advocate. Get in touch with her at mdonigan@wowway.com and tell her you want to help.

Flip: Artists And Sprawl

This third installment of Flip looks at how two artists view the geography of urban and suburban place in America. Both come from Flakphoto, another of the terrifically creative places to view digital photography.

Photographer Terry Evans looks at Chicago in this site, which deploys interactive motion graphics in an easily navigable format. 

The next example is how Jeff Brouws looks at sprawl. His is a sort of inspired cynicism. Very cool stuff.

If you find interesting ways to apply visual technology, the Internet, interactive multi-media, or anything else that makes you look twice and think, “Damn!” let me know. Contact information is at the bottom of the about page here. Take care. 

On the Bubble and A Little Bit Off

Tonight Al Gore could win an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Later this year he could also win the Nobel Prize for Peace. And if he lost 50 pounds and jumped into the 2008 presidential race, he could win that, too. Ever since he published “Earth in The Balance,” his 1992 best-seller, Gore’s two issues have been global climate change and himself.

The first, global climate change, is drawing the nation inexorably to logical choices about energy, metropolitan development patterns, population, conservation, and transportation. The catch phrase here is doing much more with much less. 

The second, Gore himself, is the problem of already having much more and working really hard to do less. It’s like dragging the best trumpet player in the marching band out to perform the Star Spangled Banner. Reluctance doesn’t begin to describe Al Gore’s nearly 20-year romance with true greatness. He abandoned almost any mention of the environment in 2000. Bush’s pledge to abide by the Kyoto Protocols, which he abandoned immediately upon crossing the White House threshold, attracted more attention. al-gore.jpg

Nevertheless here Gore is again ready to take a bow for superb leadership, while the rest of us who’ve been frustrated and inspired wonder what he intends to do with his favorite issue and global prominence. The momentum to change the rules of the development game, and to frame it around battling global climate change, is so intense that even George Bush stepped out on on the White House lawn for a moment last week to tout electric cars, a kind of presidential Punxsutawney Phil moment, to see if he could cast any shadow of influence over the issue. The president looks smaller these days, more pinched and stressed and embarrassed, almost like Michael Dukakis looked in 1988 when he put on that military helmet and rode in the tank.

No so Al Gore, who commands every stage he strides across. No one knows more about global climate change than he does, and no one inspires more confidence on the issue. A few weeks ago Gore was the guest of honor in New York at the World Resources Institute’s 25th anniversary celebration, helped raise $2 million, and showed yet again the star power that green issues have attained. Not since the first Earth Day in 1970 has the environment gained such stature and invited this much attention in economic, cultural, and political circles.

The question is whether Gore will complete the mission. As those of us who make the case and organize to shape new ideas know, it still takes government to draw the players and capital together to make big public interest ideas a reality. The federal government has the capacity to act. Its record on the environment is superb. What the United States has done to clear the air, scrub the waters, protect endangered species, encourage research and new findings, ensure natural areas, and all the while grow the economy, has few equals in the annals of public interest policy making. 

As Gore noted in 1992, and again over the last few years, the earth is in the balance. Will he take command of the Oval Office and really do something about it?