Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

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.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant Plan of the City 1791When 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.

After some fits and starts and differences that persist to this day, much of what was Washington County has been developed along the same grid and avenue pattern of the original L'Enfant City.  (Right: Washington County as depicted in a Wikipedia map.)

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.

Nashville Community Character Manual, Cover
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.

DC might as well be a suburb.  (Photo shot in Takoma Park, Maryland, two blocks from the DC-Maryland border.)

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.

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At 10:04 AM, Blogger dan reed! said...

This is an interesting concept not unlike Chris Leinberger's WalkUP typology: the suburban "mindset" isn't just about jurisdictional lines, but about built form and transportation options. I'd venture that places like downtown Silver Spring or downtown Bethesda, which have an urban built form and lots of transportation options, have a more "urban" mindset than much of DC. Note the opposition from residents of Shepherd Park DC (in Ward 4) to more high-rise development across the street in Silver Spring.

Who is this woman in the photo? I can't help but laugh at the sentiment of her T-shirt. Is she aware that Bethesda and Silver Spring have been functionally urban places since the 1960's? It's not like this is a new thing.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I should have probably chatted her up but we were on our way to the Grant Ave. Market, so I didn't get more info from her. But yes, the attitudes thing is interesting and subtle. E.g., the point you make just within MoCo, but elected officials like Marc Elrich would argue that MoCo needs to stay and strengthen its suburbanity as its competitive position.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, and I went to the ULI session last week on bike facilities. SOmeone made the point that the ANC in Ward 3 and resident opposition to bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue. (The ANC eventually voted in favor, but this has been an ongoing issue for more than one year.)

I made the point that they were against development generally, not just bike lanes, "they're nimbys on all the smart growth issues, development too, not just bike lanes."

But it's really about this urban-suburban divide.

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

What is a shame is that car2go isn't opening up its data.

There appears to be a patterns where the cars are all in the "walking city" during the day, then spread out to the edes of the L'enfant city, and then go and spend the night out in w 3,4,5.

And really, DC is 3 cities: The L'Enfant City, the Suburban City, and a festering sore EOTR.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I need some GIS skillz... I'd say we have four cities: the core; the suburban city; but the pockets of urbanism, like Petworth, in the suburban city; and the ignored city.

Thanks for continuing to poke at and develop the concept.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh and with car2go, you're probably pretty much right. Probably the car2go vehicles support those of us in the outer city who are sustainable transit adherents who occasionally are looking for a quick fix.

Then again, people in the core are more likely to use the vehicles for quick trips where they are moving "cargo".

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of car2go and the core, not just cargo. No pun intended.

Outside of congestion, car2go is far quicker than biking. Part of the curse/benefit of the L'enfant city is it very well adapted to auto traffic thanks to extremly wide roads.

In terms of the larger discussion, what are the the benefits to the "suburban" city to moving into a more urban phase?

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I did mean the pun, but probably how we use it is just one of the segments--to replace taxi rides mostly, in a pinch to carry stuff, especially if we hadn't intended to acquire/get stuff we had to carry or other atypical situation when we want to get home fast, or to go to Parkway Deli when I have a big craving on the spur of the moment.

2. Car2Go is great for up to two people. Even if it can be faster than biking, for us, that's the issue. I wouldn't want to use it otherwise, because I'd have to use it to get back.

3. The benefits to urbanizing the suburban city are fourfold.

1. Sustainability and all that, but those are indirect benefits that are values related;

2. more successful and resilient neighborhoods (more population and more optimal mobility supports local retail, schools, etc., with more efficient use of the existing infrastructure, and lower cost for adding infrastructure)--you already see the benefit of adding population in places like U Street, 14th Street, H Street, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Capitol Riverfront/Capitol Hill in terms of neighborhood commercial district revitalization;

3. with regard to individual households the ADU/apts. issue allows for more economically successful and resilient households for the owners, and enables comparatively more affordable housing for the renting household; and

4. the biggest argument is that a city with greater population has greater tax revenue, more commerce, etc., and therefore is more successful economically, more resilient, etc., which is particularly important for DC which doesn't have a state able to step in financially in crisis, and the fed. govt. is increasingly less willing to do so.

I guess a fifth argument is that because mostly the biggest addition of housing will be in commercially zoned areas, that the impact will be minimal.

This could be less the case with ADUs and apartments. Obviously I think that such units should be enabled primarily in zones well served by transit, and residents should be incentivized to use sustainable modes.

Note that argument 4 is rarely communicated very well by the city, other than adding up to 250,000 more population (the latest number bandied about). In planning processes, these broad goals aren't discussed (you like the term "unpacked") in a thorough way.

So city people have to pursue both citywide and neighborhood goals, while residents are only tasked with their parochial foci.

Never the twain shall meet as a result.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

well, in terms of your pro-arguments, the only one I'd hear as a member of the suburban class in DC is "more density means better retail."

And that is in the long term. In the short term, I've got to deal with construction and more cars.

In the medium term, is it going to increase the value of my house?

(And let's be honest, the area around say C. Park is pretty dense with condo/appt buildings).

Is it going to lower my property and/or income tax?

I suggested car2go because it is an example of city initative which is a win/win for both the walking city and the suburban city. Are there others? Agree better retails your "main streets" is certainly part of it. If you want Georgia Ave developed you are going to need some people with higher incomes. Not sure that applies to McArthur blvd.

i've suggested in the past that streetcars might be one example -- the benefits of lower noise and pollution are worth it to the higher income neighboorhoods.

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great posting and very good insights here. It is very disappointing to see the backwards steps taken wrt to the new zoning changes- both with parking minimums and with corner or small scale stores. In Alpert's posting on corner stores he makes the quip that "DC never had many corner stores" of course this is coming form someone who has no concept of the city's history- I recall my own grandmother saying that you "never had to leave" our neighborhood because you could buy anything you needed on Capitol Hill/Navy Yard- there were many many small stores- probably alot more than Alpert realizes. Again- people make assumptions about DC based on what they see now as opposed to what it once was. Few other cities suffer this kind of badmouthing and lack of understanding as DC. Great posting with alot of great data-keep up the good work Richard.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think that the increase in housing increase property values as do the improvements in schools and commercial districts. I think there is minimal impact on the residents.

U R absolutely right about streetcars and ride quality and noise reduction. I would never want to live on a bus corridor (like 8th St. NE) because of the loudness of the buses and the frequency. You can't really sit on your porch...

Even places like MacArthur Blvd. probably can use some population increase to improve the store base. Certainly they'd like a nicer Safeway (at least, you'd think so).

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, over time, the increases in revenue that these projects provide do allow for property tax reduction, maybe sales tax reduction.

... but not if the Council and Mayor want to spend the money on stupid stuff...

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In Alpert's posting on corner stores he makes the quip that "DC never had many corner stores" of course this is coming form someone who has no concept of the city's history"

This is false, the article makes no such claim. In fact the article supports the rest of your grandma's story.

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Hey, I live directly on 8th St NE! It's not that bad (outside of rush hour) and we use our porch a lot. My son loves to point and wave to all the buses.

But yes, having a streetcar that runs the 90/92 route would be a dream, both for the quiet and higher level of service. Its an easy and obvious way to link up to the planned streetcar in Anacostia, also. Oh well, lets get the benning - georgetown one running and then we can worry about it..

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Really! I lived on 6th St. There it wasn't so bad (except for the vibrations), but the D bus frequency is nothing like 8th St.

The electric bus concept (overhead wires like in SF and Seattle) is something Kevin Palmer--he lives on the 700 block of 8th.--used to dream about.

I keep thinking, whenever I write about this, about talking with a woman on her porch about 10 years ago, she lived on the 600 block of L Street NE, and it was very difficult to hear.

Then again, people sit outside on restaurant patios... but I don't think I'd want to.

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

again I am amazed at how many of the old people on Capitol Hill are voiciferously against streetcars- but they do not seem to understand that they are better than buses - quieter, better rides, more energy efficient, longer lasting- and yet the negativity astounds me. The city needs to do a campaign to reach out to older people to convince them of the need for streetcars. These are mostly affluent types who have probably been to Europe and yet they are still against streetcars which makes no sense at all..I just do not understand the NIMBYs where I live.. and they think I am crazy to be on a bicycle all of the time getting my groceries and moving stuff they think can only be done with a car...

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