Monthly Archives: December 2012

What’s Wrong Here? Or, Bad Design Breeds Bad Neighborhoods

Work recently took me to West Valley City, where I took the picture below:

A neighborhood in West Valley City.

A neighborhood in West Valley City.

The picture doesn’t show very much, but after I took it I was surprised at how much information I could glean. And unfortunately, most of that information isn’t good.

Probably the most obvious sign of trouble is the graffiti on the street sign. I’ve written in favor of street art in the past, but this work clearly has… questionable artistic merit. In a nutshell, it goes to the broken windows theory that says that a mess in the built environment breeds additional problems.

But that isn’t the only problem here. What’s probably even more telling is that there no sidewalks. That means anyone who wants to walk has to do so in the street, with the cars. So it’s a hostile environment for people.

The chain link fence and the weeds aren’t doing the street any favors, but I think many of these problems trace back to the lack of walkability. It means there are fewer people out on the street — so there’s no one to catch vandals or other criminals — and that people who can chose to live in a more hospitable setting will.

And it gets worse. Just across the street sits this house:

A recently refurbished home in West Valley City.

A recently refurbished home in West Valley City.

That’s one of the saddest pictures of a neighborhood I’ve ever taken. It also bodes very badly for the long term prospects of this home, the neighborhood, and nearby projects like this one.

But the point is that the real problem here isn’t vandals, or chain link fence, or lazy owners who create homes that need refurbishment. All of those things are merely symptoms of a larger issue: this area is not well-designed. And until it becomes more hospitable to people all the refurbishment projects in the world aren’t going to put an end to the crime and social problems for which West Valley City is known.

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John Curtis’ 2013 Wish List

Mayor Curtis enjoys a spectacularly high approval rating and it’s probably because he has great ideas. Case in point, his 2013 “dream list“:

  • A respectable campaign season with everyone acting like adults
  • More scheduled flights at the airport (this one stays on the list from last year)
  • Take Vision 2030 to the next level (we need to look out 50 years into the future)
  • Ditch our reputation as the towing and booting capitol of the Universe
  • More, more, more social media (ugh – that means I need to tweet)
  • Start a public dialog about a new City Center building
  • Increase our growing national reputation as a “cool” city

Those are all great goals. I’m particularly excited for the idea of looking further down the road, as I think we should be taking the long when it comes to development. For example, I’ve recently had conversations with people during which I argued that Provo is going to be amazing in 200 years. I think we need to seriously consider really long term scenarios, and I love that Mayor Curtis is pushing that sort of thinking. In the end, Provo isn’t going to be great for future generations unless we start making big improvements now.

It's probably time to replace this building, which serves as the city hall.

It’s probably time to replace this building, which serves as the city hall.

I also appreciate the fact that Mayor Curtis wants to start a dialog about a new city center — which I previously argued was desperately needed (also see this follow up that includes examples of great city halls) — and that he wants to grow the city’s reputation as a cool place. That’s an idea that I’ve previously described as mystique, and which can have significant economic benefits. Clearly, there is a zeitgeist surrounding some of these issues right now.

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Not All Drivers Are Created Equal

So I’ve been commuting for a week now and while I love my new job the drive to get there is killing me. Everyday, it seems, there is a huge accident that insufferably delays my drive time.

And as it turns out, that drive time is being impacted differently by different drivers.

The Atlantic Cities reported last week on a new study that removing certain types of drivers actually has different impacts on congestion:

The central finding of the the paper, published today in Scientific Reports, is that while keeping one percent of all drivers off the road cuts traffic congestion by three percent, eliminating the same number of drivers from particular neighborhoods can reduce travel time for everyone else by a whopping 18 percent.

The article goes on to mention that in San Francisco, removing drivers from certain neighborhoods, for example, would significantly alleviate drive times.

I didn’t have time to examine the study itself — I’m spending all my time as a prisoner in my car — but I could imagine these findings leading to more targeted uses of public transit. And at worst, I suppose, they give scientific credence to the idea that all the idiot drivers live in specific locations.

One of the many traffic jams I experienced last week.

One of the many traffic jams I experienced last week.

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How to Really Create a “Downtown Feel”

Orem recently approved a new apartment complex for the corner of Center Street and Orem Boulevard. It’ll include a mix of one and two bedroom apartments. And according to an article written by my former colleague Genelle Pugmire, officials want to create a walkable community with a “downtown feel.”

There’s a lot to like about this project, beginning with its intentions to create a more human-scaled environment. Apparently it’ll also conceal its parking, have street level apartments and is designed to take advantage of nearby transit. Not so long ago developers and city officials wouldn’t even have bothered mentioning things like walkability or the need to conceal parking so everyone involved in this project deserves praise for moving in the right direction.

But as is so often the case, these overtures to progress aren’t enough and I expect this project to be more of the same in a currently unpleasant, unwalkable and hostile environment. In other words, they’re almost superficial compared to the existing and upcoming problems.

Take, for instance, parking. The developers claim to want to capitalize on nearby transit and a Target — which includes a grocery store — but are including 1.5 parking spaces for 1-bedroom units and 2 spaces for 2-bedroom units. That gives residents an active incentive to drive, not walk.

It’ll also mean more low-performing paved land, which is rarely walkable or aesthetically pleasing, and will drive up the cost of the development thus reducing the diversity of the residents. By contrast, if some units had no parking, or even less parking, they would be less expensive and would increase the ratio of people to cars. I wouldn’t advocate eliminating all parking for this type of development, but two spaces for apartment dwellers on a transit route and across the street from a grocery store seems excessive.

It’s also entirely at odds with current trends related to driving and everything we know about walkability. It’s a glaring example of (possibly self-imposed) parking minimums at a time when parking minimums are recognized as destructive to cities.

And that’s just one example.

Other problems include adding a 7-11 — a non-local and specifically car-oriented business that has been rejected in other communities — and the fact that there are apparently no changes mentioned for the surrounding infrastructure. That’s important because the current street is horribly designed and utterly unwalkable:

One of the corners in this intersection is going to be the site of a new apartment complex. But no matter how well-designed it is, the surrounding streets are too wide and have too much high-speed traffic to be truly walkable.

One of the corners in this intersection is going to be the site of a new apartment complex. But no matter how well-designed it is, the surrounding streets are too wide and have too much high-speed traffic to be truly walkable.

Would you want to walk here? Even adding some good design elements — which may or may not include the upcoming apartments — won't overcome the fact that the entire area is surrounded by massive parking lots. The crusade to improve this area should start with fixing that problem.

Would you want to walk here? Even adding some good design elements — which may or may not include the upcoming apartments — won’t overcome the fact that the entire area is surrounded by massive parking lots. The crusade to improve this area should start with fixing that problem.

Given the current state of the streets and surrounding development, I expect to see many people actually driving from the new apartments to Target because there are no design elements to make walking easier.

The result is that there’s little reason to believe that this apartment complex will be anything more than another cheap building in an awful, car-dependent location. I hope I’m wrong. But hearing that leaders want something as nebulous as a “downtown feel” indicates to me that they fail to understand that thriving downtowns are the result of smart, longterm economic investment. Good design is part of that investment and has real economic impacts (see previous posts here and here, for example).

Or said another way, achieving a “downtown feel” has less to do with individual elements like apartment buildings and more to do with how all the elements in a place work in concert. And unfortunately, the majority of the elements in this location are out of tune with real success.

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas! Though posts are a bit more intermittent these days, they’ll be back in some degree of regularity after the holidays.

In the mean time, just imagine how much easier Santa’s job would be if people weren’t so spread out. Like all of us, Santa wastes more time in transit when people live in sprawling, needlessly low-density communities. That means Santa also expends more resources — reindeer feed, flying sleigh magic, personal stamina, etc. — just getting from place to place. The result is that he can’t spend those resources on presents for all of us. In other words, just like parents who would have more time and money to spend on their kids if they didn’t commute so much, Santa could be even more giving if we would just build better cities.

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Provo is a Bit Grinch-y

Over the weekend, The Atlantic Cities posted a piece about cities that are “real-life Whovilles with demographic characteristics that could turn even the strongest-willed holiday-merriment-haters into jolly good fellows.”

In other words, it’s about the merriest cities in America.

Provo typically ranks highly for volunteerism and giving generally, so I kind of expected to see it on the list. I was, however, disappointed. In fact according to the map included with the article, it’s not even in the top category.

The report on which the article is based, however, wasn’t about measurements of niceness. Instead, it was looking at a variety of city-related factors:

  • Population density: “greater amount of merry people within an area”
  • Costume rental stores per capita: “the Grinch can get his Santa disguise”
  • Selected retail outlets per capita: “more presents for the Grinch to steal and eventually return”
  • Meat markets per capita: “for the roast beast”
  • Musicians, singers, music directors, and composers per capita: “to first annoy, then touch the Grinch’s heart with singing”
  • Night-time light: “to draw the Grinch’s attention”
  • Hospitals per capita: “for the Grinch when his heart grows ‘three sizes that day’ “

The article — which doesn’t mention any Utah cities by name — is intentionally based on a somewhat silly idea so I’m not going too read to much into it. But it does make an important point: dense, vibrant cities offer the most opportunities for Christmas celebrating.

Holiday art by local school children adorns shop windows in downtown.

Holiday art by local school children adorns shop windows in downtown.

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Walk to Church

By Jesse Thomas

Ever since moving to Utah, I’ve had the intuition that nobody should be driving to church (of course, except the pregnant, disabled, elderly, etc.). I have witnessed perfectly able-bodied individuals hop into a car and drive less than a quarter-mile to get to the meetinghouse.

LDS churches around central Provo, from the Church’s official meetinghouse locator

LDS churches around central Provo, from the Church’s official meetinghouse locator

I’ve seen this happen in Davis County, northern Utah County, and here in Provo–while living at Wymount Terrace. Less than a quarter-mile. It’s just another symptom of our entrenched automobile-only thinking. And despite the fact a large majority of members live within about half a mile of buildings in Provo, the church continues to build parking lots with usually over 100 stalls around them.

Here’s the deal, having LDS churches scattered across neighborhoods all over Utah is actually an advantage to forming move livable and enjoyable communities because they are already a part of neighborhoods that otherwise have little or no mixed land use. They currently are the best hope for community in our isolated neighborhoods.

Eric Jacobson, the author of  The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, argues that car-centric, suburban thinking is affecting our spiritual lives. While discussing the way that our built environment interacts with our society in an interview with Christianity Today, he said, “Churches shape the built environment either by becoming a key gathering spot within a particular neighborhood or by becoming a kind of alien presence in a neighborhood where a whole bunch of cars from ‘who knows where’ show up intermittently throughout the week, but especially on Sunday morning.” The churches are in our neighborhoods, it’s really our choice how much we allow them to benefit our spiritual community.

Norman Rockwell catches the sentiment.

Norman Rockwell catches the sentiment.

Think about how a weekly routine of walking to church can enhance your life. Health benefits of walking places have been well documented on this blog here and here. It gives the chance for more interaction with your many of your neighbors that are also heading to church. And doesn’t the whole idea of walking to church have a romantic feel to it? It’s quaint. It’s about enjoying the company, the conversation, and the moment.

So I can hear the objections already: “It’s winter outside; I’m cold!” “You try walking to church with little kids!” Well fine, wait till spring. As for the kids, you would know that it is hard enough for most kids to keep their energy pent up for three hours at church. Why not let them get some of that energy out on the way to and from the meetings? And do you really want to have to go through the extensive process of loading the kids into car seats and boosters two more times each week?

And as a bonus, biking or walking to the temple is certainly doable for many here in Provo. Despite the hill that the temple is on, there are bike lanes and racks at the grounds. And the future city center temple will definitely be a walkable venture for many of Provo’s residents in downtown neighborhoods (not to mention that there are already a few meeting places for friends of faiths other than LDS already located in downtown).

Jesse Thomas is originally from Chicago and came out to Provo to attend BYU. He will be graduating in April  2013 in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. He and his lovely wife plan on moving to DC after graduation to pursue work in international affairs. Visit his blog at byubathrooms.com.

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Filed under biking, commuting, Mormon