A “Small Community” within the Community?

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Boise City Comprehensive General Plan (City of Boise, 1963)

“In the consideration of residential areas, the neighborhood is usually considered to be the basic unit. It is generally conceived of as a small community within the community having more or less homogeneous physical character and interests. The preferred pattern for a neighborhood centers about the elementary school site and play area and is designed to be free of unnecessary vehicular traffic.” (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

I suppose we’ve all read words very similar to the above statement, in a myriad of comprehensive plans and general use plans from communities throughout the united States. And Boise, Idaho is not unique in its inability to achieve the lofty goals of a true “community within a community”. Today, in places like Seattle, Fort Worth, and Arlington, such a vision is most often couched as a desire for urban villages.

Let’s take a moment to look at Boise’s 50-year history attempting to make such urban places, and perhaps there are lessons to learn from this singular case study.

In the Beginning

In 1963 Boise, Idaho launched an ambitious effort to craft a community-wide comprehensive plan, and (for the first time) adopt a zoning ordinance that would govern all land uses within the city’s jurisdiction.

Within three years the planning effort was complete, and the new zoning ordinance was adopted. There were three volumes to the plan documents: 1) a comprehensive plan which included a city-wide future land use map and a detailed map showing the complete reconstruction of the city’s downtown business district, 2) a volume containing all the planning research and administration documents, and 3) the new land use-based zoning and subdivision ordinances. Although these plans were quite forward-thinking compared to the state of the planning profession in Idaho during the early 1960’s (the State itself would not obligate cities and counties to craft similar planning documents for at least another decade), the plans for the community’s new neighborhoods were based on principals that had been first espoused over three decades earlier — based upon sociological precepts which were already beginning to receive considerable criticism within the planning profession.

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Boise Neighborhood Plan, (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

The above image was offered as a typical new neighborhood for the city. The plan indicates an area roughly 640 acres in size, bounded by thoroughfares representing the major section line roads that the plan called to be widened and extended. A large commercial complex would be located at an intersection of these thoroughfares, while a phalanx of higher density apartment buildings would buffer the commercial area from the remainder of the lower-density single-family detached housing development. This wall of apartments would then turn inward, forming a corridor of higher density-housing leading towards the center of the new neighborhood. At this center we see two elements; first, the apartment corridor terminating at a new public school and second, a significant amount of new and/or preserved Open Space with both trees and a water course cutting diagonal across the entire neighborhood.

Where did this idea come from?

This diagram compares favorably to the Neighborhood Unit diagram created by Clarence Perry, in his 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (see below). Comparing the two diagrams, the similarity is striking — the perimeter retail, the centralized school, the bordering higher capacity roadways, even the internal collector roads into which the local residential streets feed.

perry-diagram

Neighborhood Unit Diagram (Clarence Perry, 1929 Regional Plan for New York and its Environs, Cornell University Library Rare Manuscript Collections, Accessed 3/4/2014)

While both the Perry and Boise diagrams indicate a centrally located school, the former indicates a number of neighborhood-oriented uses to accompany that school, including churches and a public facility. And, while the latter indicates a similar amount of green space, it is essentially rural in character with only one delineated “park” — the rest of the open space would be “wooded”, replete with a “stream” (which, in Boise’s arid climate, could only be either an irrigation canal that would have serviced the former farmland, from which the new neighborhood would be have been carved, or a similar farmland drainage lateral).

All of the open space illustrated in the Perry diagram represents improved parks, bounded by roadways that would provide access for residents. Further, all of the homes in the Perry diagram would be located within a block of one of these parks, while in the Boise diagram nearly half of the residents would live more than a 1/4-mile from any form of open space (and access would be far more restricted, being provided only at the small number of intersecting local streets).

How are these two ideas really different?

What’s most striking though is the difference in scale. The Perry diagram indicates an internal radius of 1/4-mile, and while the Boise plan does not provide any type of scaling map element, its implied internal radius is a full 1/2-mile (since the section line roads, indicated by the bounding thoroughfares, are one mile apart). So, while the majority of residents in the Perry diagram would live within a quarter-mile of retail shops (easily reachable with a five minute walk), the majority of residents in a new Boise neighborhood would live over a half mile from the proposed commercial land use. It’s easy to see that the framers of the Boise plan did not intend their residents to walk to retail but to drive, graphically evinced by the large areas of dedicated parking surrounding the new shopping area.

“As Perry’s theory evolved and was modified, many of its enthusiastic adherents began to ascribe rather “mystical” powers to it. These new powers largely reflected a nostalgia for rural living.” (Jerrold Allaire. American Society of Planning Officials. Information Report No. 141. December 1961)

This is not to say that the Perry diagram represented the most advanced thoughts on how to craft neighborhoods. In fact, the proponents of the diagram were already under siege from a number of quarters. The chorus of Perry critics had been growing so loud that by 1960 (three years before the Boise planning efforts were launched), the American Society of Planning Officials issued a detailed report discussing the drawbacks of Perry’s Neighborhood Unit and offering some corrective measures. Chief among those critics was Reginald Isaacs who, as early as 1948, had been publicly stating that Perry’s concept of the neighborhood had become a planning tool used to institute racial, ethnic, religious and economic segregation. Others felt that the Neighborhood Unit was itself a straightforward attempt to modularize suburban development, leading to a generally monotonous character.

“From Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico, the basic Perry neighborhood unit, with only minor modifications, has served as the development module. The formula is simple, and the result is tidy, perhaps too tidy. As too often happens through the use of a modular system, the end products are so standardized as to become almost undifferentiated. Thus one might feel just as at home, or just as lost, on the curvilinear streets of a “Desert Mesa” in Arizona, at the neighborhood super-shop in a “Prairie Estates” in Illinois, or in the centrally located elementary school in a “Rolling Meadows” in Pennsylvania.” (Jerrold Allaire. American Society of Planning Officials. Information Report No. 141. December 1961)

What did these differences mean to Boise?

boise-neighborhood

Boise Neighborhood (Notes by Author, Google Earth image, Accessed 3/6/2014)

The above image shows one of those neighborhoods (located within the West Valley Neighborhood Association). It has a centrally-located elementary school, an adjacent (singular) city park, while the Settlers Canal and its adjacent gravel pathway (running through the neighborhood’s northwest quadrant) fairly-well mimics the initial plan’s “wooded area with stream.”

All in all, the new neighborhoods that emerged after the 1963 plan was adopted were significantly compliant with the vision outlined in the 1963 diagram. While the plan had purported that the Boise population would reach an incredible 110,000 residents by 1980, it had (in fact) attained a population of just over 102,000 — which was a fairly accurate prognostication, given that the 1960 census (the last census conducted before the planning process was initiated) listed the city’s population at just over 34,000 residents.

But as you delve deeper into the 1963 documents, an internal inconsistency emerges. On pages 13 and 14 of the Comprehensive General Plan, discussion is given to what was termed Neighborhood Commercial uses. This type of commercial use is broken into three categories:

1) Shopping Centers (located at major intersections, as delineated in the neighborhood diagram),

2) Ribbon Commercial Development (located along thoroughfares), and

3) Corner Grocery or Convenience Stores (located within residential neighborhoods).

This last category is most dependent on foot traffic, and in Perry’s diagram the 1/4-mile service radius would place the majority of retail shops within easy walking distance of a large majority of the neighborhood’s residents.

“The corner grocery stores, frequently of the type known as the “ma and pa” store, are located in almost every neighborhood in Boise City. To a large extent they cater to walk-in trade, provide a convenience to the neighborhood, and generate little vehicular traffic. The curb parking provided is usually adequate.” (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

Perhaps the area covered by the Boise neighborhood diagram made delineating the presence of these smaller, walk-in, “ma and pa” commercial activities troublesome, but when their diagrammatic absence is paired with the proscriptive language of the land use zoning ordinance written to support the General Plan some light is shed.

None of the newly called for residential land use zone categories (R-1A, R-1B, R-1C, R-2, or R-3) permitted any kind of commercial activity beyond some limited home occupations, and only a severely restricted set of personal service businesses could be permitted via a conditional use permit — no food or grocery services were to be allowed under any circumstances.

The lack of pedestrian-accessible retail uses, as well as the increase in the scale of the neighborhood (from 160 acres to 640 acres), and the relatively restricted open-space access, all contributed to the creation of an automobile-dependent neighborhood environment. And while much advertising space was given over during the build-out of these new neighborhoods to their rural-like freedoms and conveniences (access to wooded areas, model homes with “farm kitchens”, sometimes even near-by working farms, etc.), only but the first few home buyers were able to enjoy these rural-like settings. As the larger former farm-lots were further subdivided and zoned for residential uses, these emerging neighborhoods lost their rural character. And, due to the inadequate accommodation for neighborhood/pedestrian retail activities, they also grew into sterile residence-only environments.

What’s the take-away?

Perhaps the two most significant opportunities for refinement, for any community contemplating the development of “urban villages” (communities within a community), is to ensure the scale of each neighborhood is appropriate, and that there are amply opportunities and regulatory encouragements to develop and maintain small scale neighborhood commercial and personal service uses.

As professional planners we must not conflate the political artifacts of neighborhood association boundaries (often created by residents’ opposition to some proposed new development, or social justice issue) with a true neighborhood. Such places are often no larger than 125 acres; an area that one can walk across (from edge to edge) in no more than 10-minutes, and which has a distinct architectural and social character.

Lastly, the advent of mixed-use zoning can help resurrect the small neighborhood-oriented commercial uses that have been excised from our communities through the instrument of conventional single-use land use codes.

The Curitiba Experiment

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Grafite em Curitiba (Photo: Fernando Rosa, January 18, 2013) http://alturl.com/8dzyq

How would cities look if urban planners, not politicians, were in charge?

Recycle City: The Road to Curitiba (New York Times, May 20, 2007)

Planning from the Outside

The long history of the city of Curitiba, in southern Brazil, demonstrates that it is perhaps the most heavily planned city in the western hemisphere. The layout of the original town, like many such colonial developments in the Americas, had been heavily influenced by the Laws of the Indies — a set of precepts from the 16th Century that dictated much of the governance of Spanish and Portuguese land holdings; which included rules for town planning. And, though Brazil gained independence from Portugal in the 1820’s it’s various cities were still governed by many of the land use laws inherited from its former European ruler.

Even 250 years after its founding (and 120 years after Brazilian independence), Curitiba’s first true Master Plan was still developed, not by locals but, by the French architect and sociologist Alfred Agache in 1943 — a Beaux-Arts trained architect who was a leading theorist, teacher and practitioner of the Société Française des Urbanistes (SFU).

 “Planning – as we have often said in our conferences – is both a science, an art and a philosophy; A science because it proceeds from the systematic review of the facts based on a detailed study of the pasts of cities and their characteristics. The Planner’s next step is to investigate the causes of development or discomfort; and finally, only after a specific detailed analysis, is it possible to provide for the required improvements for the future development of the city. Observation, classification, analysis and synthesis — all required characteristics of a scientific study. ” … “But if science alone could solve the problems of city planning, urbanization could undoubtedly be reduced to a number of formulas. It is not so. Urbanism is also an art because the intuition, imagination, and composition play an important role in its application: the Planner must translate into proportion, volumes, perspectives, silhouettes, the various proposals suggested by engineers, economists, public health concerns and financial constraints.” … “Urbanism is also in the field of social philosophy — The city, in fact, seeks to achieve plastically the appropriate framework for the existence of an organized community.” Alfred Agache, 1932

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Alfred Agache’s plan for Curitiba (Alfred Agache, 1943) http://tinyurl.com/lvssvbm

Agache’s plan for Curtiba was profoundly influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, borrowing the following elements:

  1. A Central Railway
  2. A Perimeter Avenue
  3. Interstitial support avenues
  4. A Central Railway station located on the Perimeter Avenue
  5. A main avenue leading from the Central Railway station to the City Center.
  6. A series of parks located beyond the city, and
  7. A peripheral greenbelt Park Avenue that would connect all the city parks.

Agache’s plan assumed a maximum population for Curitiba of no more than 900,000 people, all residing in buildings constructed to be between six to eight stories in height. Understandably, this would have resulted in a fairly compact city.

This time around, the plan would be local-grown.

Even though the town’s population had only reached 430,000 by 1960 it had already outpaced the land area envisioned in the Agache Plan (essentially by growing less densely).  Spurred on by residents’ concerns over the loss of easily accessible green space and the loss of the city’s unique character, in 1964 the mayor of Curitiba (Ivo Arzua) issued a call for proposals for a new plan for the city.

This time around, the initial plan was prepared by an energetic group of local professionals led by Jaime Lerner — a 27 year old local who had just graduated from architecture school. The following year, Learner help form the city’s first-ever planning department, the Institute of Urban Planning and Research of Curitiba (abbreviated the IPPUC in Portuguese). Over the next few years the Lerner-led IPPUC refined the initial plan, readying it for the city’s adoption in 1968.

This new, local plan for the city lead to nothing less than a revolution in urban planning.

If you want to make life better for people, make the cities better for people.

Jaime Lerner

Video: How a Brazilian City has Revolutionized Urban Planning

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRD3l3rlMpo

This new plan more fully integrated transportation planning and land use planning, as well as tying social welfare programs for some of the poorest residents to the development of the city.

Transportation as the backbone for sustainable practices

trinary road system

Curitiba’s Trinary Road System (IPPUC, accessed 2014) http://tinyurl.com/n79qt3b

By 1974 the reorganization of the city’s road system into a new hierarchical network was implemented; this included the formation of a radically new road type — one whose central component is a mass transit spine. Unlike similar network systems in the United States and elsewhere, where the lead position in such a hierarchy is the limited-access Freeway, in Curtiba the position is held by the Sistema Trinário (or, Trinary Road System). These five trinary road corridors, radiating outward and encircling the city, are actually composed of three parallel road sections. The two outer roads are for local vehicles and pedestrians (serving as a paired one-way couplet) while the central road is a wider road section composed of two outer one-way streets and an inner two-directional street reserved exclusively for bus mass transit.

The picture below shows the development surrounding the central spine road of one of the Trinary Road network.

Trinary Road Spine Development (Photo: Joel Rocha, 2015)

This full-integration of transit accommodations in the road design itself allows the buses running along the central spine to operate at a level of efficiency similar to that of rail transit.

It’s asserted by proud Curitibanos that if you miss your bus, you have to wait all of 90-seconds to catch your next ride.

In less than 20 years, this Trinary Road System, with its integrated Bus Rapid Transit System, was expanded to cover the entire city.

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Evolution of Curitiba’s Transportation System (Jonas Rabinovitch and Josef Leitmann, 1993)

Curitiba’s BRT was constructed at a cost of only $200,000 per kilometer, nearly 450-times less than the cost of a new subway, and it transports 2.3 million passengers a day, not bad for a city with a population of 1.75 million.

With such success, Curitiba’s BRT system has heavily influenced the development of similar transit systems throughout the world.

Video: Curitiba’s BRT: Inspired Bus Rapis Transit Around the World

https://player.vimeo.com/video/12499536

Other Sustainability Efforts

As part of the municipal plan, the city has pushed other sustainability efforts. These include a dramatic increase in the amount of green space per resident, and some innovative efforts like the “garbage that’s not garbage” program that trades fresh vegetables for trash brought in for recycling.

Even Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist, has written about the environmental and social successes of Curitiba.

The Downside of Success

Although the city has undergone quite a renaissance since the adoption of its own locally grown plan, there have been some recent setbacks.

The Atlantic Cities blog recently published an article titled, Has South America’s Most Sustainable City Lost Its Edge?, which highlights a recent 4.3% decline in BRT ridership, and emerging failure to more fully integrate its suburbs into a more coherent regional plan.

Stefan Gruber, the Austrian architecture and urbanism professor, has written that the city’s more paternalistic attitude towards its citizens (and resultant lack of democratic outreach) has hobbled the city’s ability to elicit a sense of civic responsibility among its residents.

Conclusion

As American towns struggle to implement sustainability and livability measures, Curitiba’s frugal example of putting the needs of the people first in all its planning efforts is worth emulating.

curitba-as-vita-the-turtle-jaime-lerner-http4-bp-blogspot-com-q4q2waxq5raupbl4h2tkpiaaaaaaaaegoz0nyxv2tkx8s1600nov2010-theaudicity-02

Curitiba as Vita the Turtle (Jaime Lerner, 2006) http://alturl.com/6gvqo

While the city does loose marks for its comparative lack of democratic input from its citizens (compared to other Brazilian cities), the IPPUC does engage in extensive outreach as it develops its plans (far more than most U.S. cities).

From its focus on social, environmental, and transportation improvements — all through the lens of free enterprise (its BRT system runs with very minimal government subsidy) — Curitiba may provide the best example for growing towns throughout the American West.

centro-de-curitiba-francisco-anzola-2-3-2010-commons-wikimedia-org-wiki-file-curitiba_centro

Downtown Curitiba (Photo: Francisco Anzola, February 3, 2010) http://alturl.com/jbqk7

I’m a (yawn) Planner

I hate to say it, but planning is so… well… boring.

“Duller than the dinner party bore” (Gareth Dunlop, http://www.fathom.pro/blog/2010/03/duller-than-the-dinner-party-bore/)

This isn’t to say planners themselves are boring people — though I’ve known a few who could put a meth-fueled gorilla to sleep with their talk of tax-increment financing and the fine points of inter-agency coordination.

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 - http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 – http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

No, planning seems to have wrapped around it a cloak of social invisibility. Maybe this is due to a lack of perceived cool-ness by the glitterati, or an unwillingness among practitioners to engage in a bit of socially relevant boat-rocking — but regardless, the profession has all the avant garde qualities of a meatloaf dinner at grandma’s.

Why can’t we be like architects?

Architecture, as a profession, is a bit different. Architects carry a certain social cache — people lie about being architects.

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield,

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield, “The Race”, 1994)

I don’t know anyone who lies about being a planner.

Yet Architecture, perhaps because of its cool-ness, has a personality problem. There’s a huge discrepancy between what actually goes on in an architecture firm, and what society thinks is going on. The public thinks most architects design beautiful buildings, have impeccable taste, live in gorgeous homes, travel to exotic locations, and make tremendous amounts of money (or, if they’re “poor” it’s because they’re choosing to suffer for their art). The reality is a quite a bit less glamorous; with careers choked with project schedules, pay applications, specification editing, and a myriad of management issues that leave most architects wishing they had switched majors when they were in undergraduate school.

But… there is a certain amount of success that comes with perseverance, and those architects who do succeed feel a kind of cultural pressure to justify their success by sponsoring and supporting more socially relevant work. So we see efforts like Sam “Sambo” Mockbee’s Rural Studio at Auburn University’s School of Architecture. The Rural Studio dedicates itself to providing architecture students a hands-on working experience as they design and build community-oriented projects in several poor counties in rural Alabama.

Also, there’s the DesignBuildBLUFF  program at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture. DesignBuildBLUFF provides an opportunity for architecture students to design and build sustainable architecture on a Navajo reservation; with an eye towards graduating more compassionate architects.

And then there’s Cameron Sinclair’s mothership of compassion, Architecture for Humanity. Architecture for Humanity serves as a type of clearing house that connects professional architects, designers, and contractors with communities in need; taking the position that “design is the ultimate renewable resource.

What we in the planning profession tend to lack are comparable outlets for our creative energies. Where are the university-based community-oriented efforts? Where are the connections to our under-served populations?

Is Tactical Urbanism cool?

Maybe this is why Tactical Urbanism is so popular in planning programs these days. Is it an effort to make planning as relevant as the planning students, and social activists, feel it should to be?

And maybe… just maybe… worth lying about at a dinner party?

To be clear, there are precious few academics pushing the subject of what Jaime Lerner calls Urban Acupuncture — and even fewer professional planners (lest they risk violating their AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct)

B2. We shall not accept an assignment from a client or employer when the services to be performed involve conduct that we know to be illegal or in violation of these rules.

B25. We shall neither deliberately, nor with reckless indifference, commit any wrongful act, whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct, that reflects adversely on our professional fitness.

(AICP, Our Rules of Conduct)

But, for many reasons, it’s hard to draw equivalencies at the level of the profession between fully-supported academic programs like the Rural Studio and grassroots efforts like Tactical Urbanism. And, unfortunately for most planning students, such efforts are rarely led or initiated by professional planners.

But here’s the point — do most of us really need lessons on being a decent human being?

Isn’t planning, with all its homely charm, simply the act of being decent to each other?

Guy Guy Greg - Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

Guy Guy Greg – Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

So yeah, I’m rockin’ the boring.

Let me regale you with my ideas on tax revenue expenditures, on the finer points of public open space strategies, and the pernicious problems of urban sprawl.

Let’s go seed bomb an abandoned lot, paint an “illegal” bike lane, and share our stories about how we protested outside a public hearing.

Or while we’re working on the next bit of hacktivism with Code for America, building an app that’ll help kids catch their school bus or make it easier for folks to find the closest healthy food store, let’s discuss better ways to craft a long-range regional transportation plan. Maybe, we’ll push for broad municipal participatory budgeting, or work on a new mixed-use neighborhood plan.

How you doin'... I'm a Planner.

How you doin’… I’m a Planner.

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