Thursday, December 15, 2011

Intersection Density, Disinvestment, and Decay

On twitter this morning and in recent discussion about the West Dallas Plan and its relation to the contentious Sylvan:Thirty project I've been writing/talking a good bit about block structure. Particularly, block size and the surrounding network, its complexity and interconnectedness as measured by intersection density. I have several contentions regarding the West Dallas Plan, but as it regards to Sylvan:Thirty, I found the biggest glaring weakness is the lack of definitive block size. There are no maximums. Therefore, there is no certainty that a complex, interconnected, safe, desirable, walkable urban neighborhood will ever emerge.

This centers on the work by Prof. Norman Garrick at the University of Connecticut, who has shown direct correlation between intersection density and the safety of an area, modal share, and walkability. I find this to be not just correlated, but causal and predictive as towards the future value of a neighborhood. Limited network density, means decreased mobility, increased risk of severe injury, therefore less desirable, and ultimately less valued by individuals, the market, and eventually investors. They often don't realize it well until the place has cleared out and its lost critical mass and then real estate values plummet.

This fall, the City of Dallas initiated a new planning project focused on five DART station area plans. All are in rather desperate areas and the plan is that after initial planning efforts, each will have a first phase of affordable, workforce housing for the kind of people that need to be near DART station in order to have mobility so as to not have the mandatory expense of car ownership.

However, DART is only one form of mobility, regional mobility. There also must be local mobility. So when going after this project, I put together the following studies showing intersection density and real walkability as opposed to the typical 10-minute walk circles. (The project has been given to Fregonese/Calthorpe)

Also, it should be noted that distance-based walkability is strictly an objective measurement. How far can you get in ten minutes? What is within convenient reach? In the following imagery, I'm only showing that study. I've left out the subjective analysis (as you can see pages are missing), which shows imagery of the character of the environment: boarded up buildings, vacant lots, parking lots, broken or non-existent sidewalks, big bad roads, etc. etc. i.e. the kind of things that make walking feel or seem unsafe, unpleasurable, and undesirable.

Each study area gets three pages. The first shows the demographics in the study area. The second shows the real world ten-minute walking distances in relation to the theoretical ten-minute walk circles. The third page shows intersection density. It was my point that the areas became run-down because of the lack of real, quality public infrastructure in the way of an interconnected, dense network of streets and blocks.

See (and click to embiggen):

Yellow shows theoretical walking distance. Green shows actual 10-minute walks.

Blue dots show intersection density and on each page I show the calculation of intersections per square mile. Garrick's work shows that walkability, safety, and in turn desirability, really jump at around 225 intersections per square mile and up. All of these are much, much lower. Most of which are sub-100.

As a contrast, State-Thomas neighborhood, one of the best examples of neighborhood revitalization in the country after the area was gutted by S&L speculation in the 80s, has 253 intersections per square mile. It's average block size is about 350x325'. The Pearl District in Portland, another example of revitalization, has a typical block size that is even smaller, 225'x225'. In turn there is a very tight network of streets, yielding a highly walkable intersection density of 447(!).

Thus, we can begin putting together some predictions that any revitalization must be tempered and potentially unsustained if we don't significantly raise mobility and safety of areas through increased intersection/network density.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

4 Types of Cyclists

This highly effective little graphic comes from a white paper produced by Roger Geller. The key to bike ridership is not converting the "Interested but Concerned" into "Enthused" or "Fearless." Changing people is far more difficult than changing the infrastructure (unless you are the City of Dallas).

Instead, you have to tap into that population base. But why?

For one, despite the various regional geographies and mindsets we might personally identify with, these percentages are pretty consistent no matter where the question is posed. Portland, Dallas, or Amsterdam. The difference is how amenable the infrastructure is.

Second, this:

and this:

Is far safer, cheaper (for city and individual), more spatially & energy efficient, and healthier than this:

or this:

Or this:

How much longer would you like your income heading towards these things? At some point, the choice will no longer be yours.

Thoroughfare Plans and the Downward Spiral of (un)intended Consequences

The delay in the bike plan has raised the rabble from the woodwork and apparently really touched a nerve within those active, engaged, occasionally hopeful and sometimes cynical towards Dallas' efforts. Certainly this is partially due to the popularity and interest the bike plan had going into it. There must also be a growing sentiment that all plans, those that the citizenry really want and need, or perhaps only feel deep within their bones of intuition, are the ones that always fizzle. That only sit on shelves as plans for planning's sake.

Meanwhile, the world's ugliest building is finishing out. Soon to eclipse the previous holder of the title. Both local. All of that gets done because it's easy. It sort of strikes me like the South Park episode about Magic Johnson curing AIDS. "Just inject it with $250,000 worth of liquified, concentrated cash." It's not the city's money (for the most part), at least not yet. Until they start getting the maintenance bill or wish they had preserved some land for actual tax generated private property.

The map of downtown Dallas when you black out parking lots or garages, vacant buildings/structures/lots, as well as non-taxable entities (churches and civic facilities) is not pretty. There is a distinct imbalance between tax base, what might be called the vanilla ice cream in the sundae, i.e. the foundation the cherries sit upon and those cherries. All the big wow projects we get and then just sit.

There are a few abstract, generalized formulae I like to point to in order to explain how urban dynamics and morphology work. The first is that any place, area, city, or neighborhood exists within a continuum:

Macro Level:
Viable ---> Livable ---> Memorable or Lovable


Micro Level:
Integration begets Accommodation (usable land uses, entrepreneurial opportunites, ie demand) begets Decoration (detailed design improvements)

Of course, there is a degree below viable which is not viable for concentrated human habitation. There is no opportunity there other than agriculture or nature. The degree which a place sits on that continuum is defined by its level of integration, locally, regionally, and globally. How connected it is to everything else. What we find is that often the infrastructure for global and regional connectivity often disrupts local connectivity, reducing overall integration and thereby dropping the level perhaps from Livable to merely viable. These include airports, shipping ports, rail hubs, highways, large arterials, etc. Likely as some kind of shipping depot, light industrial that wants to be by an airport, or gas stations/strip centers that want to be on regionally connective freeways.

What happened to many of the downtowns in the U.S., particularly in the Sun Belt was the fervor with which they pursued regional connections at the expense of local integration, that which can be safely and enjoyably walked, if one so chooses. There is an extremely high degree of mobility. After spending some time in Barcelona this summer, I'm not sure I can point to a better example. You can get to just about anywhere in the city, to all of your needs, near or far, quickly and expediently. Only on the rarest of occasions do the regional connections disrupt the local:

Notice the development around it has been ripped to pieces. Sure, things will infill, but the character is so poorly defined and integrated that it will never hold up to the rest of Barcelona. The eternal cooperation and competition between and within cities. It should also be noted the other Norman Foster phallic high-rise is right there. It's a common response to failures in the network to overcome them with extravagant buildings. Sometimes you even make it super shiny and glowy to cover up the degraded ground plane. Sound familiar at all?

Often times those destinations are close. You can walk across the street to them. Because I live in one of the few places in all of DFW where it is possible to get to everything I need within a few blocks including transit, my velocity is quite slow. Much slower than suburbanites getting to a their local Appleby's or whatnot. However, I can get there more predictably, more quickly, and while expending much less energy. The average Barcelona resident burns one-twelfth of the gasoline than does the typical Sun Belt resident. Little side note for you.

There are two problems here. One is the way we measure traffic efficiency and rate roadways, which is entirely by speed of movement. This is essentially coded in a way to always, ALWAYS favor car traffic and thereby sprawl as well as dangerous roadways. Why sprawl? Because the formulae used will always say that only more lanes are necessary, widening of all roads in order to improve traffic flow. The reason is because it is a broken system with an impossible end game. The optimal condition is NO cars on the road. Every other car is the enemy and an impediment to your and everybody else's trip. Hence, why you hate them, flick them off, curse them, and get out of your car miserable. Or was that just me?

Because the solution to every question is bigger roads, and the cities happily take the federal money, the cities end up gutting their own tax base. For every percentage increase in lane miles, ie size of roads, there exists a 1 to 1 increase in the VMTs driven by the citizenry. Meaning, the more roads that are built, the further afield everyone lives, the more everyone drives. Bigger roads invariably lead to a further spread out population, with increased infrastructural burden, lower density to pay for that infrastructure, and thus it is all failing. Every part of the system, from the financing and budget to the physical integrity of the actual structures themselves:

Because all cities and metro areas are required by federal law to create thoroughfare plans they must categorize every road. Furthermore, because of the way fed/state money is prioritized towards the bigger roads (highways and arterials) there is an incentive for cities chasing money like crack fiends to upgrade, reclassify, or "improve" roads towards the bigger and badder. These interupt the fine-grained local connective tissue of neighborhoods. It decreases downtowns steadily, with each new road from Memorable down to Livable and eventually down to barely Viable.

Meanwhile, land formerly out in the boonies, in places we now know as McKinney, Plano, Allen, Frisco, etc., went from not viable, to Viable, to Livable in some cases. It remains to be seen how many can remain livable and/or viable on into an increasing unclear energy future. I've written before how cities are always defined by the newly emergent transportation technology and how that technology is now the internet, smart phones, etc. The ability to be connected long distances (regionally and globally) somewhat effectively reduces the demand for regional and global connections. Sure, they're sometimes still necessary, but not to prioritize them while de-emphasizing the local. The local is density. The local is where people collaborate, innovate, interact, and invent. The local is what we must prioritize.

For a brief read on spatial integration, the math and measure of it, and how we decreased the level of downtown Dallas integration and connectivity, thus undermining demand while adding supply of speculative office towers, much of which have emptied out, please see here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DC, More Like BC

As in "behind the times," amirite? They so could've built this:

Think about how many of those pesky buildings are in the way, that could've been knocked down to make way for gas stations and parking. Oh, plenty o' parking. Cheap, plentiful, convenient parking lots. #progress #economicdevelopment

Day in the Life of a Pop-up Street Cafe

Location matters, of course. Integration --> Accommodation --> Decoration. Though this is more of a parklet than it is cafe space for the restaurant that paid for it. Would a few tables help or hurt? Having only the common bench seems to make it rather inviting where tables might discourage the public nature of it.


Rudy Bush, the DMN's city hall beat reporter asked me to weigh in on the latest delays, objections, etc. with implementing the city's new bike plan. You'd think those issues would've been voiced and addressed long ago. Land mines. Makes you wonder about the entire process. I feel for Angela and Scott on Dallas City Council. They're trying. They're really trying. Here is my response, cross-posted from the DMN's blog:

Well, there are a few issues at hand. From the way I understand it the time and delay really stem from the transportation committee, which is hesitant to lose any traffic lanes dedicated to cars. Meaning, it isn't just as simple as re-striping existing roads whenever they're due for re-painting, which would be the cheap, logical, and expedient thing to do in the appropriate locations.
Second, it strikes me as disingenuous to throw numbers around for an entire system buildout that could take who knows how long or how many different projects it would entail. The slow down makes the study and planning effort look a bit like a sham, which is a real waste of money. It should also be noted that I've never seen as many people at a public kickoff as with this bike plan. People were excited.

Contrast the way the city is operating here with how Fort Worth has been enacting bike lanes - incrementally and effectively. I find it amazing that the Better Block Project was invented in Dallas, yet there is no evidence of results from those events. Meanwhile, the city of Fort Worth made those changes permanent.

This has an economic development component to it as well. The Magnolia Avenue corridor's sales receipts have jumped from (and if I remember the numbers correctly) $2 million last year to $11 million in 2011. It was simple re-striping, one street at a time. Meanwhile, as I joked on twitter Monday, we're spending how much on Calatrava to redesign a bridge (which as the existing Calatrava Bridge suggests, he'll probably just copy his own design again (see: Reggio Emilia, Italy)), a silly idea and engineering study for a Ferris Wheel, etc. etc.? If they think that is economic development, then I have another bridge to sell them.

Part of economic development is being cool, which is invaluable. In fact, that is probably the biggest element to long-term economic success, in attracting businesses and talented individuals. They want to go where it is cool, where it matches their lifestyle. The bike and its relationship to what is cool, mostly through Millennial generation nostalgia, can't be overlooked. In the same way that Boomers saw James Dean and cars as a form of freedom, I really think my generation and younger, those dependent upon mom or the school bus to drive us everywhere growing up, saw the bike as our independence.

When people have choice in transportation and can make their own decisions rationally, based on their particular needs for a particular trip, that makes a truly "smart city." It builds intelligence into the operating system by empowering the users if there truly are rational options. Biking, like many other forms of transportation, is virtually impossible here, which is expressed in the numbers of people who actually do it.

Another mistake is to make transportation decisions based on existing land use and density. For example, everything is far apart and rather inconvenient for anything but the car. So the ignorant use this, saying, "Well, everything is too far apart to bike." Of course, it is. Because the transportation system is built only for the car, so the land uses and development patterns respond in kind. If you provide adequate infrastructure for other forms of transportation, the city and the real estate market will adapt.

Now look at the cities that everybody is dying to live in, be in, visit: New York, Copenhagen, Vancouver, Barcelona. These are cities that have been focusing not just on bicycling, but on balancing transportation, with legitimate choices in modes and routes of transportation. We like to throw around the term "world class," but those are really world class cities. They don't need to puff their chest and boast about it as some superficial fabrication.

In other news, here is the map of traffic fatalities in DFW Metroplex 2001-09:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Integration Increment

This is in relation to this.

Oh, addendum: here is a little background information:
High integration means high value in the "movement economy," i.e. access and the commercial viability to capitalize on it. This then in turn means high level of service (commercial) and amenity. Which then, in turn, ought to mean high level of demand for residential proximity to said amenities. In theory, it and the process to deliver the above, means a full urban ecology in bloom where each nourishes the other in positive feedback loops.

DFW Squares/Plazas, Chapter 3

As you may know, I've begun a bit of a recurring examination and perhaps critique of the plazas and squares of DFW. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. Admittedly, this may be short-lived since there just might be less legitimately integral plazas to the overall movement and land use network in all of DFW than in Siena, Italy alone (and I specifically chose an aerial that ignore the Campo):

I'm going to review two by request today, Southlake Town Square and the Eisemann Center in Richardson, both of which have been built within the last ten or so years. Keep in mind the word integral mentioned above, because that is what gets lost in the majority of our attempts at these single-purpose, off the shelf, attempts at something loosely called "sense of place."

In other words, it has been completely bastardized for marketing purposes as our transportation, real estate, and placemaking, i.e. people places, have all lost sight of one another when they ought to be intertwined. That gets too in the way of the road builders and "efficiency" pursuers, even though the end result of their labor is the antithesis of efficient.

First up, Southlake Town Square: Suburban, OK.

Southlake Town Square Court House

The first thing I notice regarding the primary square at Southlake is its scale that would make emperor's blush. Three football fields side by side can fit within the building envelope. Likely intentionally large to allow for large gatherings, it isn't exactly designed to suit events, lacking a bit of flexibility in its intent. I imagine the large pond and fountain collects some of the runoff hence its relative lack of accessibility. If the water is purely functional, I imagine it could be collected somewhere else.

Sure, it looks nice, but the fact that you can't interact with it, get down to the level and touch it, detracts from its aesthetics. Furthermore, being that it is sunken creates a weird spatial environment in such a large open space, that I get a bit agoraphobic thinking about it. Of course, I'm open to corrections if you can get down to it.

The larger issue is the relationship between building height and the distance between building faces, i.e. the width of the space. Like it or not we're still cave people. We like feeling as though we are within confined spaces. The rough max building height to open space relationship where we still feel as though we're within an "outdoor room" is about 1:5, say two 20' tall buildings separated by a 100' wide space. The relationship at Southlake looks to be about 1:12, hence agoraphobia.

I also question what this does for the commercial environment, since cross shopping is divided by such a large distance. Contrast this with my favorite part of Southlake:
Southlake- A Town Square PlazaI give this space an A+, given its context. It feels nice, it doesn't try to do too much, it feels integral to its environment.

Perhaps that is another part of the problem with the main square, that it is divided by the large arterial Southlake Boulevard. This is rather natural, you want to get people off of that road, because duh, it's an awful road. So instead of improving the road (unthinkable!), you create a road side attraction and make the experience off-center from the road:

If you buy into the work of Bill Hillier and Space Syntax, you know that any/every deviation from the primary axis or energy source, that being the arterial, is realized by an incremental loss in value.

Except, they are improving the road according to the latest google earth aerial!...

Or not. Actually, it just looks like they are adding what I presume to be a grass median. This is "improvement." The road isn't being narrowed, still three travel lanes on each side. Traffic isn't being slowed. And perhaps even worse, they are blockading connections between the two sides of development. All through movement, no stick around movement. No gravitational pull.

Other than the arbitrary shrubbing and overly wide scale of the square, it's about as best we can do under the iron and ignorant fist of traffic engineers.

Eisemann Center, Richardson. Grade, Incomplete.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this yet. This has been a long time in the works, yet the development has filled out slowly. Very slowly. In fact, the plaza, I suppose, isn't even yet fully enclosed. That is, if the plaza is what seems to be more of a pedestrian promenade between the DART stop and the performing arts center.

It can look great with the proper framing and optics! Stepping back a bit is where the confusion sets in...

As you can see at the bottom left, the last site hasn't yet filled in. I'm confused as to where the center of this place is. Again, it is presumably the axis running left to right on this image. However, the placement of the garages and office buildings is clumsy. I guess the office buildings needed to interact with some abstract landscape rather than a potential people place. Meanwhile the garages occupy two corners of the primary junction point of the place.

However, even if the last parcel were to fill in, I'm skeptical the critical mass is there to bring the place to life. I think the scale and minimalist design of the plaza will be perfectly fine and nice. With the highway acting as a barrier on one side, less than a quarter mile in the other three directions, whatever they're trying to build here runs into awful suburban arterials and disconnected office parks, none of which have much of a relationship between each other. Precisely why the value will be sucked right out of all of them. Hopefully the Eisemann and its context can stay strong, providing the seed of regeneration when all else fails around it.

Not a Pedestrian Mall

Janette Sadik Khan has hit it big. Main stream media is picking up on the wild and crazy ideas of actually improving cities:

Video link here (sorry, no embed code)

This isn't about de-car-ing the city or pedestrian malling and this particular solution won't work just anywhere. Every single place across this country will have its own special calibrated solution. This is also not to be confused with pedestrian mall-ing of downtowns. What they did in NYC is improve overall mobility, which is precisely why business has improved. Not because it is pedestrian, but because it is more fluid. More pedestrians can fit in Times Square than cars AND the only time they're congested is on New Years Eve.