Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Sustainable urban and regional planning is the philosophy of designing and planning the human-built environment to comply with principles of economic, social and ecological sustainability. Originally first articulated as a criterion for urban design and planning back in the 1970's by Richard Hopper (then Hawaii's State Environmental Planning Coordinator) both in an article published in the magazine of the American Planning Association and as part of an effort he led to develop a "Quality Growth Policy for the State of Hawaii," sustainability is no longer a concept limited to the field of biology. Instead, as Hopper articulated back in the 1970's all natural and man-made systems have an inherent carrying-capacity that can either be: (1) used as a limit for growth; (2) ignored and exceeded with the consequence of thus degrading the system; or (3) expanded through new technologies and method of design and planning. As such, applying the concepts of sustainability and carrying-capacity to the design of our man-made built environment helps to protect the quality of both our man-made and natural environment.
One of the first principles of sustainable design and urban and regional land use and transportation planning is to recognize that we are all connected, and what one of us does affects us all. As such, sustainable design and urban planning is about creating sustainable "communities." This means that we need to be concerned not only with the direct and obvious negative environmental impacts that can be traced to our individual actions, but that we also need to address the collective and cumulative impacts of our societal activities. That is where urban and regional design and planning comes in. Urban and regional design and planning is how we as a community or society can work cooperatively to build sustainable communities. Urban and regional design and planning consists of three components: (1) research to identify problems; (2) brain-storming through design charettes and other means to develop alternatives; and (3) public participation to reach consensus on proposed means of implementation. Urban and regional design and planning, however, does not replace the political process in making the ultimate decision on implementation actions such as revised zoning, public infrastructure funding, etc. What urban and regional design and planning does is to help promote informed decision-making and a long-range vision to guide development. In this context, what sustainable design and urban planning does is to include sustainability is a criterion to help guide development decisions.
Sustainable design and urban and regional land use and transportation planning is guided by several principles borrowed from biology or the natural environment. These include the concepts of: (1) connectedness; (2) renewability; (3) efficiency; (4) minimization of externalities or negative impacts; and (5) carrying-capacity. Urban planners and designers that are interested in achieving sustainable development and communities use a variety of new urban design and planning principles and techniques to help achieve these concepts or goals of sustainability. These include smart growth strategies, new urbanism designs, sustainable urban infrastructure, and new strategies to bring the natural environment back into our urban man-made environment. Following is a discussion of some of these techniques of sustainable land-use and transportation planning and management.
MASS TRANSIT -- Next to the energy used to heat and cool buildings, the greatest amount of energy we used is in transportation. As such, any sustainable design and planning of our urban communities needs to incorporate the use of mass transit and other innovative forms of energy efficient transportation as they are invented. In this regard, we need to be careful that our zoning and building codes do not lock us into outdated technology. As an example, today buildings and mass transit are designed separately. As a consequence, it is often a long walk outdoors to access mass transit, thus discouraging the use of mass transit. What is even worse is that too often mass transit stations are only accessed by driving to them by automobile and parking. A better design would be to allow residential and commercial use all within walking distance of transit stations, and to construct major civic and other buildings where mass transit is immediately adjacent or connected to the buildings. Also, if we want to encourage mass transit, we need to find better ways to accommodate the needs of the disabled so that mass transit is available to all. Finally, in today's "information age" we need to find a better way to use information and smart technologies to better manage traffic flow so as to help the wasted energy of individuals sitting in congestion.
"NEW URBANISM" AND "SMART GROWTH" LAND DEVELOPMENT -- In the 1920's, landscape architect John Nolen designed a new suburb on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. This new suburb was named Mariemont and was meant to be a "National Examplar" of how suburbs should be designed. It was connected to Cincinnati by streetcar and by Route 50 which ran through its center. As such, it was the first transit-oriented suburb. It also was designed with all the schools and town center to be within a five or ten minute walk from all parts of the community. As such, it was designed to be promote walking and bicycling. To make the community even more pedestrian-friendly, numerous small to medium sized parks were scattered evenly throughout the community, park benches were built on street corners, streets were designed to be narrower than the typical modern suburban street to slow traffic, and large shade trees were planted between the sidewalks and streets to provide shade for pedestrians. Also, the garages of homes were set even with or behind the homes acccessed by alleyways. Through his planning of Mariemont and other subsequent communities and cities, John Nolen is credited with being the "father of modern urban planning." Ironically, the demand for housing after World War II caused the nation to abandon the planning model of John Nolen and instead to develop sprawling residential only suburbs in the model of Levittown, New York. These newer suburbs were designed for the automobile as opposed to pedestrians or mass-transit. They also abandoned the concept of integrated mixed-use as John Nolen had designed for his Mariemont community. Today, however, the 1950's style of suburban sprawl after the model of Levittown is understood to be energy efficent, wasteful of land, a contributor to air pollution and global warming, destructive of the natural environment, and destructive of of the sense of community. For this reason, urban planners and designers are increasingly turning back to the model of Mariemont as designed by John Nolen. When employed in for a suburban development, this model is typically referred to as "New Urbanism." When employed in the design of a closer-in and more dense semi-urban development, this model is typically referred to as "Smart Growth." In fact, both emphasis the same principles emphasized by John Nolen -- i.e. pedestrian oriented, transit-based, mixed-use development, with the purpose of both being to make urban and suburban development more sustainable and compatible with both the human and natural environment (as opposed to emphasizing the automobile). These two models for land development and zoning have become the primary methods of urban planners to make urban land use more sustainable. One of the first examples of "New Urbanism" is the community of Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland -- while two of the more recent and best examples are Celebration in Orlando, Florida and the King Farm in Rockville, Maryland (with the latter being initially designed by Richard Hopper, who is referred to above as having initiated the concept of sustainable design in urban planning and development back in the 1970's and who then went on to also become one of the pioneers in promoting recycling and resource recovery). With respect to the concept of Smart Growth, perhaps the best known example of efforts at "Smart Growth" is Montgomery County, Maryland (with the King Farm referred to above being part of Montgomery County, Maryland's efforts to promote "Smart Growth").
Above is a site plan for the "New Urbanism" community of the King Farm in Rockville, Maryland. The gray colored line running through its middle from left to right is a road where the center right-of-way is reserved for light rail, to connect the subway to the right where the road runs also runs into Rockville Pike. Until the light-rail is built, the center right of way is being used for a special bus to take residents to the subway, which then goes to downtown Washington, D.C. The King Farm is a mixed-use development with a town center and schools that consists of 3,200 residential units and 3.2 million square feet of office. It has received numerous national awards for its "New Urbanism" design.
Monday, April 20, 2009
PRESERVATION OF URBAN "NATURAL ENVIRONENT" -- Until recently, the approach to urban planning and development was to pave over natural environments and to replace streams with concrete pipes. This increased stormwater runoff and pollutants and sedimentation that ran into our rivers, bays and estuaries. With sustainable urban design and planning, however, the new approach is to preserve and protect as much of the natural environment as possible in our urban areas to filter stormwater runoff, preserve wildlife habitat, and to reduce the "heat island effect" of our urban areas. In summary, the new sustainable approach to urban planning and design is to preserve the "green" in our urban man-made environments.
THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY -- Ultimately, the most important solution to sustainable design and urban and regional planning is yourself. There is not one solution to sustainability that is the best fit for all communities. Each community has its own unique needs and potentials. The key is citizen activism and commitment to the principal of making their own community sustainable. Out of such citizen activisim around the world are coming the most wonderful solutions. An example is the Danish island of Samso. Covering an area of 46 square miles, or approximately the size of the island of Nantucket, the citizens of Samso decided that they were going to make themselves totally energy self-sufficient. By constructing wind turbines, solar panels, and burning their biomass to produce energy, not only has Samso become totally energy self-sufficient -- but it now exports energy to the Danish mainland! Following the Samso example, the entire country of Denmark has now committed to energy self-sufficiency and produces 20 percent of its total energy needs from wind turbines, and has become the world's leading manufacturer and supplier of wind turbines. This compares to the United States where only 1 percent of our energy comes from wind turbines. Isn't ironic that a country has vast as the United States with its huge potential for wind turbines has to buy wind turbines from Denmark to install in Texas, California and elsewhere throughout the country. Denmark and the people of the island of Samso have learnt the basic lesson that not only does sustainability make environmental sense, but it also makes economic sense.
PURCHASE OF DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS -- Another example of citizen activisim to create a more sustainable environment is the Purchase of Development Rights Program (PDR Program) created by Loudoun County, Virginia. Loudoun County is one of the most beautiful areas in the country with horse farms, vineyards, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and bordered by the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Unfortunately, it is a suburb of Washington, D.C. and thus is steadily being consumed by urban sprawl. To help protect the open space of the western part of Loudoun County, the Piedmont Environmental County and other citizen organizations and individuals banned together to convince the county to enact its Purchase of Development Rights Program. This was a program to purchase the development rights on agriculture and other undeveloped pieces of land so as to preserve the open space in western Loudoun. This was cheaper than actually purchasing the land, and allowed landowners to become the stewards to protect the land. The program was funded with allocations from the county's tourist occupancy tax imposed on hotel rooms (with the hotels in Loudoun County being primarily located near Washington's Dulles airport). At the same time, the program helped to promote tourism as the beautiful horse farms, vineyards and civil war sites in Loudoun county make it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Washington, D.C. region. One of the individuals that helped to push for the creation of the PDR program and who then served on the PDR Board was Richard Hopper, who previously in his role as Hawaii's State Environmental Planning Coordinator had developed a Quality Growth Policy for Hawaii and who developed the initial plan for the "New Urbanism" community of King Farm across the Potomac River from Loudoun County, Virginia in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland.
After being devasted by a tornado, the town of Greensburg, Kansas decided to rebuild itself with all of its public buildings being LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum rated. It's first public building designed to this center, i.e. the Greensburg Arts Center, is the first platinum rated green building in Kansas. Designed by the non-profit Studio 804 of the University of Kansas, it is built with special tempered glass that blocks UV rays, 4 inch concrete floors that help retain the heat in the winter, skylights to allow in natural daylight, a green roof planted with the succulent plant sedum to absorb UV rays and reduce the need for air-conditioning in the summer (while the soil medium helps insulate and reduce the need for heating in the winter), cellulose insulation made by recycled newspapers, and both 3 Kestrel wind turbines that produce 600 watts of electricity and photovoltaic solar panels on the roof that all are used to provide electricity to the building. A converter in the basement converts the DC electricity to AC electricity, and what electricity that is not used is either stored in 12 batteries or is sold as excess to the city. The building also has 3 geothermal heating and cooling wells that draw 55 degree temperature air from 200 feet deep that makes the heat pumps of the building more efficient in both the winter and summer. Finally, rainwater from the building is collected in a 1500 gallon cistern and is used to water the natural buffalo grass lawn. The City of Greensburg has been featured in a series shown on the television station Planet Green to demonstrate what has been accomplished by one community's commitment to a more sustainable future.
Denison University in the town of Granville near Columbus, Ohio - famous for being one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the U.S. - has committed itself to be a sustainable university community. Above is a picture of the green renovations being made to Cleveland Hall. Once completed, Cleveland Hall will be an LEED rated building. Denison has also installed solar panels on its library, instituted a university recycling program, instituted a university composting program, established a program of environmental studies, and has research grants available to undergraduate students who want to pursue research projects in sustainability.
IN SUMMARY, SUSTAINABLE DESIGN AND URBAN PLANNING IS NOT ONLY GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, BUT ALSO HAS A POSTIVE ECONOMIC COST-BENEFIT -- Non-sustainable development assumes that it is too expensive to factor in the impacts of development on the natural environment and the livability of the overall community. Experience in the development of new urbanism communities like Mariemont, Ohio, planned communities such as Reston, Virginia and the re-development of downtowns such as Portland, Oregon, however, demonstrate that property values increase when the natural environment and the quality of life of a community are protected. People and businesses eventually flee unsustainable communities for a better life elsewhere. Sustainable communities, however, retain their populations from one generation to another and from one economic period to another. Also, experience shows that ultimately unsustainable development costs more. Unsustainable buildings become outdated as energy costs rise while residents flee cities that have allowed sprawl and pollution overtake the human and natural environment. And eventually air pollution regulations might limit new development in regions that have allowed themselves to be dominated by sprawl while business and residents move to the suburbs or to other cities that do not have the costa and problems of urban regions that were not designed to be sustainable. Sustainable design and urban and regional planning is not only earth-friendly and helps to address global problems such as global warming and climate change, but it makes economic and social sense as well.