Repairing the Damage in Traditional Urban Places
By Stu Sirota
Until the middle of the 20th century, Americans lived
in communities, large and small, that were comprised of genuine neighborhoods
and downtowns. Each was designed so residents could get around easily
on foot and public transit to reach all the necessities of daily life.
These traditional urban places, or "TUPs," provided a "human
scale" environment in which there was frequent and meaningful interaction
among members of society. This provided the foundation for a sustainable
network of American communities that, by and large, were healthy, stable
Everything changed after World War II, however, as Americans became enamored
with new, automobile-oriented, "bedroom" suburbs. Made possible
by an unprecedented new network of highways, these places were designed
to separate home, work, shopping and even schools into isolated zones
accessible to each other only by driving. The middle class abandoned TUPs
for car-dependent suburbs, taking with them the nation's economic and
social capital and leaving behind a huge void of neglect and disinvestment.
When the federal government stepped in to help, it came in the form of
disastrous "urban renewal" projects that only intensified the
problems. Instead of restoring established neighborhoods, block after
block was razed to make way for elevated urban freeways and parking decks
needed for the growing legions of suburban commuters. TUPs that were spared
a quick death from the wrecking ball often suffered a slow, agonizing
one from the effects of highway noise and blight. To accommodate increasing
traffic, local streets were frequently widened and often changed into
one-way, high-speed thoroughfares at the expense of sidewalks and street
trees. New, "modern" buildings constructed in TUPs were given
sterile, fortress-like appearances since they were designed with the expectation
that suburban residents would drive to them and park. This further discouraged
pedestrian activity and downtown retailing, ultimately accelerating the
downward spiral of decay.
Today, however, after a half century of abuse, the first real glimmer
of hope has appeared for TUPs. Interest in moving back to TUPs has surged
recently as people have begun to search for an alternative to the long
commutes, social isolation, cultural sterility, environmental degradation
and other problems they are increasingly finding in car-dependent suburbs.
As the demand for living in TUPs continues to climb, though, there are
significant obstacles that have kept their potential from being realized.
Persistent fears of crime and substandard schools are serious problems
that continue to dog many TUPs and keep the middle class at bay.
While those problems must certainly be addressed, there are clear, achievable
steps that can be taken by both the public and private sectors to repair
the damage inflicted on the physical fabric of TUPs. These steps could
go a long way in helping these communities once again become highly sought-after
places to live.
First, immediate action must be taken to help stabilize TUPs and protect
them from further degradation. This involves identifying and altering
existing policies that run counter to maintaining the pedestrian-oriented,
mixed use character of a TUP. For example, in many jurisdictions, traffic
engineering departments are concerned mostly with maximizing traffic flow,
typically at the expense of pedestrians and local businesses. Policies
can be introduced that ensure all current and future transportation projects
create a balanced environment for pedestrians, businesses and cars. This
could be accomplished through new standards requiring wider sidewalks,
fewer road lanes, lower speed limits, and smaller turning radii at intersections.
Many jurisdictions have started to adopt such guidelines, and the highly
respected Institute of Traffic Engineering (ITE) has even developed new
standards for TND design that employ these principles.
In the case of land use policy, local planning commissions also tend to
favor automobile-oriented development by requiring suburban-style buildings
with deep setbacks and large parking lots. In addition, many have adopted
zoning regulations that restrict mixing uses, even though TUPs, by their
very nature, are mixed-use. New standards can be introduced that not only
allow, but require redevelopment to be compact and mixed-use, and set
forth urban design guidelines that reestablish and reinforce the pedestrian-oriented
character of the TUP. These guidelines should also require that new development
relate to the street, instead of turning its back on it, in order to create
a safe and secure environment. Maryland has taken the lead on this by
developing new "Smart Codes" that provide model ordinances local
jurisdictions are encouraged to adopt (see: www.op.state.md.us/smartgrowth/smartcode/smartcode00.htm).
Another vexing problem is that TUPs, often desperate for any new economic
development, are usually quick to demolish historic buildings or entire
blocks to make way for suburban-style development or parking lots. Local
officials often fail to recognize that the historic fabric of their community
is one of their greatest assets. Decades of neglect have left many buildings
in disrepair or covered over with tacky modern facades, which lead to
misconceptions that they are obsolete and not worth saving. However, careful
restoration of these irreplaceable resources can be the key to renewed
civic pride and attracting new residents and businesses that want to locate
in this type of environment. New policies can be implemented that restrict
destruction of historic buildings while creating incentives to restore
and reuse them. Again, Maryland's new Smart Code includes a Building Rehabilitation
Code Program, specifically designed to streamline the process of restoring
historic buildings. New Jersey also implemented a similar code and has
seen a significant increase in restoration activity.
Adopting such policies can begin to reopen doors that have been closed
on TUPs for many years. Next month, I will address the second step toward
repairing the damage inflicted on these communities -- applying new TUP-friendly
policies toward creation of a long-term, comprehensive redevelopment plan.