Live blogging from CNU, Wednesday

This year the Congress for the New Urbanism is happening in Atlanta. I plan to blog as often as I can and as live as I can from the proceedings, so check back throughout the day for updates. As I found last year, CNU is a very exciting place to be. Growth in American is shifting to the principles espoused by the New Urbanists and it gives the entire atmosphere here the feeling of being on the crest of a wave. A very large wave. 

This year I signed up for the SmartCode Intensive, an all-day course for hard core coders. You are going to get my random notes as we go here, but it will be good reading as this is great stuff. If you don't want all the details but just the highlights, try the Twitter feed.

Also note: These are my notes and reactions. Unless I directly quote someone, don't ascribe the thoughts and views here to them. I kind of flow between the presenter's thoughts and slides and my own without drawing a hard distinction. I don't intend to misrepresent something a presenter said by mixing it with my own thoughts, so assume the really good stuff is the presenter and the rest is me, unless otherwise noted.

Creating Political Will

I had heard Nathan Norris speak before at a Placemakers workshop in Miami. He is a lawyer and so speaks the language of coding in a way that can be applied. He is also quite experienced with form-based coding and so I have always appreciated his insights.

Norris indicated that implementing FBC's is like running a political campaign. He went on to describe the kind of sustained, grassroots efforts that you see in a modern campaign. This is not a concept that one person can walk into a community and sell. The capacity and the demand needs to be built, step by step, from the ground up.

A couple of short tips for doing this. One that we have used at Community Growth Institute is the walking tour. Get people out and make them walk their own community. Point things out to them and help them look at the place differently. He also suggested giving people a radar gun and letting them see for themselves how people drive faster on the worst streets and slower on the ones they like the most. Measure up what is working and what is not and use that to inform the process.

He pointed out a resource I have used, but did not realize there was so much there: The Center for Applied Transect Studies. Not only codes and modules but also a great collection of images.

Norris brought up a disarming statement I first heard Andres Duany say when describing the SmartCode. The SmartCode is about putting things in the right place. It really doesn't say one thing is good or one thing is bad (for instance, cars are not good or bad, they just need a place). As an example, he gave the analogy that one would not wear a tuxedo to a square dance. Tuxedos are not bad. Square dancing is not bad. But tuxedos at a square dance is bad. 

In the same sense, high speed cars are not bad. Neighborhoods are not bad. But high speed cars in neighborhoods are bad.

Transportation Flashpoints

Rick Hall and DeWaynr Carver of Hall Planning and Engineering talked about transportation. One of them was a PE (sorry, can't remember which) which gave the entire discussion some extra credibility and excitement for me. We engineers are trainable. 

Some thoughts from their presentation:

They presented the moniker LU 1 TR 2, short for "Land Use First, Transportation Second". In a short snippet, this is a powerful message. Most planning today starts with transportation and then fits the land use in around it (see strip malls, big box, apartment buildings and snout houses....all response to a cars first approach). Planning should start with how we want to live and then the transportation system should serve us. Obvious, yes, but not how we currently do things.

He had a list of the top ten factors that determine walkability. I'll list them here from most important to least. You will notice that the most critical factors have to do with neighborhood design, not the standard backward-engineering elements that we often add after-the-fact to most road projects.

If you want your community to be walkable, focus on these items listed from most important to still important.

  1. Small block sizes
  2. Buildings fronting the street
  3. Mixed land use
  4. Lower traffic speeds
  5. On street parking
  6. Interconnected streets
  7. Narrow streets
  8. Sidewalks
  9. Traffic volumes
  10. Street trees

Again, obvious but counterintuitive to our current approach. Drive through your neighborhoods and look at all of the sidewalks that are never used. Sometimes people point to this lack of use as a justification for getting rid of sidewalks. But sidewalks will not be used without small blocks, buildings that frame the public space and places to go.

They also contrasted Suburban and Compact Urban street design standards, the latter which does not widely exist, but should. The most striking contrast between the two was the design basis. Suburban transportation systems are based on handling volume. Compact Urban transportation systems need to be based on design speed. I keep repeating myself but this is another one of those obvious, yet counterintuitive, concepts. Why would we ever design our urban areas with high-speed, high-volume roadways? Not sure, but we do it everywhere.

Lane widths of nine and ten feet work well where low speeds are desired. One slide they presented showed the widths of a variety of vehicles. Most were in the six foot range. Only one - something that looked like a Hummer, but was slightly different - was over seven feet wide. So it is not like narrow widths are crossing some type of threshold where the system breaks down. Cars just drive slower, which is what you want in an urban setting.

Along those lines, and for all my engineering friends that measure prosperity through Average Daily Traffic counts (ADT), there is one fact brought to the surface that is salient: design speed in urban areas does not impact volume. Carver pointed out that at 20 MPH, cars will go by at a rate of about one very two seconds. At 45 MPG, cars will go by at a rate of about one every two seconds. At higher speeds they simply spread out more.

A concept to look in to that I have not experienced: Reverse Angle Parking.

The Institute of Transportation Engineers has a manual recently published on Context Sensitive Solutions. If the engineers at ITE can do it, so can the rest of the engineering profession.


I spent the remainder of my battery life recording more of a talk by Andres Duany. I'll do what I can to get that edited and shared here soon. More blogging tomorrow.