DC as a suburban agenda dominated city
In this piece from the other day, "DC makes the Wall Street Journal twice in one week," in discussing parking policy, there was extended discussion on DC being dominated by a suburban mindset and planning paradigm. That's important enough a topic to be separated out into its own entry.
When what is now DC was first created, Georgetown was a town in Maryland, and what became the original City of Washington (often called "The L'Enfant City,) was farmland and settlements, redesigned by Pierre L'Enfant.
The rest of the District of Columbia was rural, spotted with small settlements, and was designated Washington County. Although Georgetown, the City of Washington, and Washington County were consolidated in 1871, it was not until 1890 when the Census Bureau termed the District of Columbia as fully urbanized.
DC was designed as a grid-based city of square blocks of a reasonable size.
Some people get confused and believe DC isn't a grid-based city of only squares, because of the radial avenues, which cut across the grid at rough 45 degree angles. The avenues were a great invention and addition to the grid, making walking, biking, and transit more efficient (trips are roughly 2/7ths shorter by being able to move on the diagonal).
The design of the city occurred during the period that geographers (Muller, “Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis”) refer to as "The Walking City Era." This pattern was maintained during the electric streetcar period, called the "Transit City Era." The first period was up til 1890, the second from 1890 to 1920.
But the distances from the core are much greater, and as streetcar lines were shut down and converted to buses, people further from the core became more reliant on the automobile, even as the modern WMATA subway system began opening in stages starting in 1976.
The reality is that the L'Enfant City is mostly Ward 6 and Ward 2, two of the city's 8 political districts. Ward 1 is equally urban from an urban design standpoint, but most of the ward is located in what was Washington County. These three wards are the smallest geographically, because they are the most dense residentially.
(Left: map of DC by political districts [wards].) The other wards, even though they contain many rowhouse sections, are decidedly more suburban, if not in urban design, in mobility mindset.
DC is two cities: the inner city core and the outer city and their respective spatial patterns and distance from activity centers shapes mobility choices
Mobility practices differ significantly in the core of the city which is best served by transit and has a traditional grid of streets and blocks that makes transit, walking, and biking efficient methods for getting around. In the core people walk, bike, and use transit more than they drive.
Outside of the core, this is less the case, and households are more likely to rely on automobiles to get around.
That doesn't mean that a car is required, but people often argue that getting around by sustainable methods is impossible, when it is mostly a matter of choice and convenience and familiarity.
But even the outer city is two different mobility landscapes, one is well served by transit, especially the subway, and the other part isn't. I discussed this in the blog entry "Understanding why Upper Northwest DC residents don't buy into the sustainability mobility paradigm."
Wards 3, 4, and 5 have much higher rates of car ownership than the wards in the urban core. Wards 7 and 8 have somewhat depressed rates of car ownership because of income differentials.
The outer city is dominated by the car and the outer city dominates the city's politics
The "urban" wards are overwhelmed numerically by the other, more suburban, wards. Although Wards 7 and 8, being being poorer than Wards 3, 4, and 5 are more focused on access to transit than the other wards, and Ward 2, being more wealthy also has a preponderance of residents committed to automobility.
That's why despite the fact that the city is decidedly an urban place, politically it has more of a suburban shaped agenda when it comes to resident attitudes about land use, development, and transportation--fostered by the fact that most residents who weren't born here tend to have moved to the city from suburban locations, and even without realizing it, they bring the suburban planning paradigm to bear on these issues.
And this lifestyle and attitudinal divide is accentuated by the fact that older people tend to be more involved politically, and older people tend to be more committed to automobile-centric mobility and planning paradigms.
Re-adopting urban land use and transportation practice is difficult because of the suburban attitudes of the majority of the city's residents and elected officials: the inner vs. outer city dynamic shapes the discussion on parking policy (and everything else)
Unless the city is particularly good at better articulating the value of an urban future--and I would argue we aren't--it becomes very difficult to change zoning and other land use and transportation planning practices away from suburban paradigms and more towards urban paradigms.
A perfect example is the battle over parking minimums in new developments ("DC planners drop proposal to end minimum parking rule for developers" from the Post). People outside of the core have been up in arms over this and other more urban-styled changes proposed to the zoning code.
Although I would argue that the fallback from better urban positions is due to failures by lack of much vision about urbanity on the part of most of the city's elected officials (see as a counter-example, "Livable. Walkable. Electable?: Tommy Wells thinks he'll be D.C.'s next Mayor" from the City Paper) and planning officials haven't stepped up to help fill in the knowledge gap.
1. the failure to articulate a solid urban vision for the city that translates planning language into practice people can understand and support (see "DC and the zoning rewrite and the approach not taken"). The Comprehensive Plan language reads well but can be interpreted in many ways and is merely a vision, not absolute law.
The Nashville Community Character Manual translates the "New Urban Transect" into a planning and zoning framework that can be adapted to built environment that has already been twisted and turned around between the Walking and Transit City Eras and Automobility and single use zoning and separated uses.
That document offers a framework that DC could have adopted to re-shape the zoning code rewrite process back towards urbanity in a manner that most people can grasp, without feeling like their lifestyles and choices are being criticized and rejected.
2. The failure to build a solid understanding of parking practice as it relates to cities (this blog entry has my most direct discussion about the necessity of integrating transportation and land use planning into one paradigm, "Comments on Proposed EYA Development at Takoma Metro Station") built on examples from other cities, in particular San Francisco and Seattle.
Ironically, at the Main Street conference in Seattle in 2007, at one session, I was so blown away by the city's second stage expansion of the elimination of parking minimums to transit districts (Seattle eliminated parking minimums in Downtown in the late 1980s), which was just being introduced, that I immediately wrote to a number of DC Office of Planning people about it, while still at the conference. I also blogged about it, "The City of Seattle has the most amazing planning for neighborhood business districts" (note that the links within the entry are out-of-date).
But Seattle continues to expand on these planning initiatives--not without controversy--to further the realization of planning vision and goals concerning the adoption of sustainable transportation modalities. See for example this March 2013 report. Seattle Transit Communities:A Citywide Strategy to Integrate Neighborhoods with Transit.
It helps that the Puget Sound region has a greater depth of understanding and ethic of environmental sustainability.
Prognosis for the zoning update trending towards supporting urbanity: mixed but unfavorable
A majority of residents will favor keeping things the same. Developers will favor change but won't make their positions known. Residents will continue to challenge changes to the zoning code as "financial bonuses and giveaways" to developers.
Elected officials will continue to weaken the urban-approach to the zoning rewrite to placate their constituents and because they themselves don't understand urban-ness and its essentiality to the city. And the planners will continue to weaken the proposals before they are even submitted to the zoning commission.
This has happened with parking, with approvals for small commercial uses within residential zones, and with proposals for clarifying and expanding the ability to have accessory dwelling units on properties or legal apartments within houses--residents will be able to choose one or the other, but not both.