Alan Mountjoy

Alan Mountjoy

Planner / Architect, NBBJ
Alan is a trained architect who has focused much of his career on master planning and urban design to achieve more sustainable and productive cities. A native Californian, he holds a Bachelor of Environmental Design from UC Berkeley and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is currently mastering the art of commuting on a fixed-gear bike in Boston.

Hospitals Play a Key Role in Building Pathways Out of Poverty

How Healthcare Providers Can Give Back to Their Neighborhoods, and Benefit from It

February 28, 2017

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was originally published by Next City.

As jobs in many low income neighborhoods have migrated to suburbs (or overseas), so have retailers and newer housing for those well-off enough to pull up roots and move out. Not so for the large hospitals that have substantial capital investments in existing buildings and, in many cases, social investments in existing communities. Public hospitals in particular tend to find themselves embedded in some of the most distressed communities in America.

As a planner working with many stressed cities in the “Rust Belt,” I frequently find local hospitals are the last and most committed economic anchors, but also the ones most impacted by economic decline in urban cores. City governments are searching for ways to leverage the economic benefits of these anchor institutions (hospital jobs certainly, but also subcontracting and services) for the benefit of the larger community. And some forward-thinking governments, along with aligned organizations and foundations, are now advancing policies and programs to do so.

For example, in Cleveland, the nonprofit development organization University Circle, Inc. has been cooperating with the city’s many world-renowned hospitals to enhance the surrounding neighborhoods. One such initiative, Greater Circle Living, is an employer-assisted housing program created to encourage eligible employees to live closer to their jobs, thus strengthening the local housing market and reducing traffic congestion on regional roadways. Another example, Next Step, encourages large institutions to focus their spending on local green businesses to supply cleaning services, food preparation or laundry. This not only advances green agendas but also bolsters local, and frequently minority-owned, enterprises and local employment in the services sector. Through programs such as these, local communities see direct benefits from the regional anchor institutions in their midst.

So how can regional healthcare institutions — that are struggling to provide quality care and attract new insured patients — benefit from these types of efforts and develop their own?

 

Think Local

By a biological analogy, a healthy organism thrives in a healthy environment. Under new accountable healthcare mandates, hospitals no longer necessarily profit from serving unhealthy populations as they may once have. Many local hospitals want to improve their positioning, marketing and general appearance for insured patients, but they also need to address the general health of the local populations which suffer from the highest preventable disease rates. Urban hospitals across the country treat residents in communities where nearly half the population is either uninsured or on Medicare. Treating population health issues and their causes is now more important than ever to reduce healthcare costs.

In the past, responses to poor local conditions may have led hospitals to clear blight in their vicinity, or to turn their backs on negative conditions in an effort to screen the problems and present a brighter face to their regional customers. Security frequently took the form of a siege mentality: fencing or large parking lots that separated troubled neighborhoods from secure zones within the campus. This approach did not do much to reverse neighborhood decline or negative impacts on the anchor institution, nor did it improve health outcomes of local residents.

 

Practice What You Preach

As in Cleveland, The Aultman Health Foundation (an integrated health system with two hospitals, a health plan and a college) in Canton, OH, is demonstrative of a more comprehensive approach to health. Aultman (and one other hospital, Mercy Medical Center) remains within the city limits, serving the city’s reduced urban population of 70,000 as well as the growing metropolitan-area population of 400,000. Employees and patients seeking specialized medical care must travel from far-flung suburbs and hamlets to one of Canton’s most distressed inner-city neighborhoods. While the neighborhood is arguably less blighted than the surroundings of other famous urban hospitals, the contrast is striking for patients and employees, and local conditions do not support healthy lifestyles for nearby residents.

The health district could eventually involve the entire neighborhood of 40 square blocks where, for example, existing residents would have access to a much-needed wellness (fitness) center, outpatient clinic, quality daycare and healthier food options. Local residents will share these resources with hospital staff, nursing students, patients and patients’ families. Nursing students, medical residents and staff will find housing in the immediate neighborhood in renovated homes or in new apartments. Redesigned roadways will reduce accidents and provide safer pedestrian crossings for kids and the elderly. Parks and tree-lined streets will encourage residents and patients to get outside in a safer neighborhood.

 

Be the Convener

As one might expect, some healthcare institutions are cautious about exercising skill sets beyond providing healthcare. They were rarely organized, or willing, to take on community blight or mixed-use development projects. But they are good at team-building. And this “Health District Strategy” takes many players — healthcare institutions, governments, foundations, private enterprises, even architects and planners — to succeed.

Aultman Health Foundation, by working with the City of Canton and their comprehensive plan, has begun to develop a comprehensive strategy for neighborhood transformation that involves an expanded group of stakeholders, city and state governments and the private development sector. At this point Aultman has convened city government, the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Canton Community Development Corporation, a local foundation and a private real estate developer to create a blueprint for a health district called “Aultman Health Village.” From fixing blighted houses to rebuilding roadways and adding needed retail and services, each of these players are addressing specific coordinated actions that are essential for success.

Aultman Health Foundation and Cleveland provide examples for other progressive healthcare institutions to follow. Anchor institutions can take a look at their surrounding communities to find win-win opportunities. One needn’t be a world-class center of medicine like the Cleveland Clinic to make a difference in one’s own community. Rather than retreat from each other in fear, institutions and communities can actively engage to reverse decline and surround the hospitals with the goods, services and housing that will heal both.

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

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Why Is a Luxury Automaker in the Car-sharing Business?

Insights from a BMW-sponsored Dialogue about the Future of Transportation

May 16, 2016

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a four-part series about the impact of driverless cars on design and planning. On Tuesday, Donald Bellefeuille wrote about the health opportunities afforded by autonomous vehicles; on Wednesday, architects and planners from NBBJ shared some surprising impacts on a wide variety of topics. On Thursday, Alex Krieger looked at the potential downside of increased congestion.

 

I recently attended one of three “community dialogues” convened by BMW Group in Boston. (Madrid and Tokyo are on the list as well.) As a manufacturer of premium performance automobiles, one can imagine that BMW is keen to understand the future of engine technology and autonomous transportation, and now it seems they are especially interested in cities.

BMW markets to strivers of all stripes: successful entrepreneurs, business people and those who wish to make a statement about their success. Unfortunately, this market niche is increasingly giving up cars altogether as they move into expensive and dense urban centers that feature mature public transit systems, ubiquitous Uber access and car-sharing opportunities. Why buy a car (much less a BMW) when your status is linked more directly to your cell phone or your international travel itinerary? This is BMW’s biggest fear.

So how can BMW continue to sell cars to its core market? Here’s what they are working on:

Electric Cars: One way to beat the rap on automobiles is to make them greener. Whether in car share or private ownership, electric cars (EVs) already are privileged with access to fast lanes, convenient charging stations and premier parking spots on streets and in garages. BMW is entering this market with the i8 and i3, two EVs with luxury appointments and, in the latter’s case, a compact urban size. As Tesla further shakes up the auto world, BMW needs to compete for the EV niche to stay relevant for urban mobility.

Car Sharing: Increasing numbers of urbanites are ditching car ownership to let someone else worry about the maintenance headaches. If you only use a car a couple of times a week you can outsource parking, fueling and insurance with car sharing. BMW sees a future market in car sharing, and they have started their own proprietary programs in nine European cities and are launching one (ReachNow) in Seattle this year.

Autonomous Vehicles: Google is making news with its fully autonomous vehicles, but BMW is taking a much more incremental approach to driver assistance. From automatic parallel-parking functions to truly autonomous handling on the Autobahn, BMW is increasingly adding functions that augment human controls to make driving safer and more relaxing. This approach requires fewer regulatory hurdles or risks than fully autonomous vehicles and adds value to existing lines of conventional cars.

Currently in the US, there is more than one car for every man woman and child. But change is coming. Urban dwellers are far less likely to own a car, even if they are occasional or even frequent users of cars. For car manufacturers, exposure to this shrinking market means featuring their vehicles in free-roving, urban car-sharing programs, or offering complementary cars to hotel guests for urban explorations. Car ownership will not be the norm, even if car use will still be ubiquitous.

Further out into the future, free-roving car-share will take on a new meaning: driverless cars will deliver you to your destination and then drive off by themselves to another errand. The distinctions between your car, a taxi or car-share will become meaningless as vehicles take on a utilitarian, almost public, function similar to airplanes, trains or buses. Yes, we will value them for their features, comfort and even level of luxury, but we may no longer covet them as personal possessions. For luxury automakers, this is a challenge to stay relevant in a more fluid marketplace.

Image courtesy of Aurimas/Flickr.

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City Planning Is Serious Play

Children's Toys Can Make Planning Meetings More Productive, Inclusive and Optimistic

January 21, 2016

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Next City.

Planning is assumed to be a sober and analytical exercise meant for serious people. But what if planning could be more fun and actually more positive and creative?  Why can’t we change the tools of planning to make it so?

I have begun introducing “play” into public planning meetings as a way of engaging stakeholders into a creative process that sidesteps the usual negativity of planning meetings. The introduction of simple LEGO blocks is a means to engage in a more creative and positive — even nostalgic, for the baby boomers who tend to populate public meetings — process. By allowing stakeholders to literally connect with their inner child, we are able to harness a more optimistic outlook, while gaining better insight into their preferences for land use, scale and density.

IMG_5337_533x710As the planning profession engages with ever more sophisticated digital tools to provide instant feedback and visualization, we have intentionally dumbed down the process by introducing a child’s toy that requires absolutely no technical gadgetry and meets an almost universal skill set in the general population. We can safely say that we engage nine- to 90-year-olds with this “technology.”

Unwittingly, LEGO has also made it easy to use their simple brick module for this purpose. Each LEGO brick is based on an 8mm-square surface module and a brick height of 9.6mm. The classic brick of 2×4 modules works almost perfectly, because the brick width of 16mm — given the typical planning scale of 1″:100′ — equals almost exactly 60 feet, one of planning’s most perfect modules. Sixty feet happens to correspond to the universal width of one parking bay, the width of a residential double-loaded corridor building, and a good depth for retail development. Offices can be built at three LEGO modules (or, at one-and-a-half bricks, 90′) and laboratories to four LEGO modules (or the width of two full bricks, 120′).

The brick height, about 30′ at this scale, is also convenient, equaling either two stories of commercial or institutional building (at 15′ per floor), or three floors of either residential or parking (at 10′ floor-to-floor heights). The LEGO brick works with nearly all typical building typologies that a planner will encounter.

Furthermore, by introducing basic land use colors that are generally understood or can be explained — for instance, yellow for housing, red for offices, green for parks and so on — meeting participants can create complex buildout scenarios with virtually no skills and immediately understand the results. A simple construction of bricks can inform planners and participants alike about density, land use, height and massing preferences, and everyone can immediately compare alternatives, side-by-side in real time.

Introducing simplicity and fun into the planning process, we can remove barriers to participation and allow creativity to transform the public discourse. The word LEGO was taken from the Danish words “play well” — and I have found that adults play much more “well” if given the right toys.

Banner image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Resilient Linkages

How Public-Private Partnerships Can Prepare Urban Waterfronts for Sea Level Rise

September 9, 2015

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

In a coastal city such as Boston, how can we balance the immediate pressure for new development with an understanding that, in the long-term, the waterfront will be subject to regular flooding? The key lies in linking a vision for the future with the ability to incrementally finance and build today.

We addressed this in a recent design competition intended to make Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood resilient in the face of sea-level rise and other climate change impacts. For inspiration we looked to the policy framework employed by Boston’s successful Harborwalk, which requires developers to integrate into new construction a segment-by-segment build-out of a contiguous pedestrian promenade along Boston’s 46-mile waterfront. Since 1984 this requirement and publicly constructed segments have completed more than 80% of the path system.

Our proposal, “Resilient Linkages,” consists of planning policies that raise resiliency requirements and incentivize responsible building — establishing, today, the supporting infrastructure for the elevated street grid of tomorrow. Specifically:

  • All new development will be required to build elevated terraces and structural piers 14-16 feet above current street levels; in time (unless we are successful at reversing the current trajectory), as sea-level rise becomes undeniable and investments in resiliency gain public support, the city will provide the final road panels that link together these structural supports to create a fully-functional, elevated street grid and utility  network.
  • Existing buildings would be allowed to add floors or sell air rights to cover the cost of flood-proofing lower levels.
  • All new development must be constructed to survive periodic and eventual inundation of the lower levels; these sacrificial lower floors will be compensated in the form of an additional height allowance above existing limits.
  • Additional height incentives are provided for buildings that provide public plazas at the elevated street level, produce renewable power or create affordable housing.
  • Existing ground-level open space will over time convert to waterparks that accept high tides or storm surges, or collect and store rainwater.

Our proposal consists of much more — included in the accompanying diagrams — but at its heart is our belief that the best resiliency strategy embraces mounting sea levels through public and private investment in responsive infrastructure. As the Harborwalk has shown us, long-range benefits can result from the sum of incremental actions over a long period of time.

4_Resilient-Linkages-Design-Proposal-Boards-1  4_Resilient-Linkages-Design-Proposal-Boards-2  4_Resilient-Linkages-Design-Proposal-Boards-3  4_Resilient-Linkages-Design-Proposal-Boards-4

Banner image courtesy of Oliver Clarke/Flickr.

All other images courtesy of NBBJ.

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Why I Still Own a Car

Free Parking Creates a Perverse Incentive for Car Ownership

February 4, 2015

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

As a Boston resident, I am quickly becoming a minority: a car owner.

Only 63% of Bostonians have “access to a car,” according to the American Community Survey, and this number is decreasing rapidly. Car ownership is simply beyond the reach of most of the city’s newer residents and has long been too expensive or inconvenient in the city’s densest neighborhoods, where rare parking spaces can set you back more than $500/month to rent or $150k to buy. A tandem parking space (two spaces end-to-end) in the Back Bay recently was auctioned for $560,000. In Boston’s densest neighborhoods, such as the historic North End, car ownership is less than 33%, and even in tony Beacon Hill, fewer than half of residents have access to a car.

So why do I still own a car? I drove 3,000 miles from California to Boston more than 20 years ago just to tour the country, and I kept it for a sense of independence. Fast-forward 20 years and, despite the nightmare of moving it around for monthly street cleaning and snow removal (not to mention shoveling), I still own a car.

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Brookline, MA (Wikipedia)

I now live in Brookline, a close-in, densely built “streetcar suburb” within three miles of the Hub. No one in their right mind would commute by car from Brookline to Boston: daily parking is now more than $50 and monthly parking… Well, I don’t want to think about it. I have access to multiple and easy methods of reaching downtown Boston; the T, bike share, Uber, Bridj (a bus-share service) or my own bike, which I ride nearly every day to the office, where I have access to a city-mandated gym pass for showering. Several Zipcar stations and car rental agencies are within a five-minute walk of my house. My zip code has an overall Walk Score of 90 — “a walker’s paradise” — and my specific neighborhood is even higher, at 93.

So why do I still own a car? Did I mention that Brookline has an exclusionary practice of banning overnight parking on its streets? Thus the only real option in Brookline is either to park over the city line in Boston, to rent or buy a space, or to be so lucky as to have a deeded space on your property.

Which is the only reason I have a car. Because 15 years ago I bought a condominium with a deeded off-street parking space. It’s that simple.

If we want our cities to be more walkable, maybe it’s time we made them less park-able. When new developments provide parking, as current regulations require them to, they just encourage more people like me to own cars they don’t really need. Much discussion has been going on in Boston about developers building housing with little or no parking: existing residents fear streets clogged with cars parked (warehoused) on city property. Yet when I think of why I still own a car, it is simply because I have a space. If I did not, I would have rid myself of a car years ago.

Image courtesy John Murphy/Flickr.

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Democracy Is Messier than Big Data

In the Rush to Quantify Urban Policy, We Can’t Neglect What Makes Us Human

August 7, 2014

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

I recently attended a panel discussion on “open source urbanism” — led by representatives of the City of Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, academia (Northeastern University) and private consultants — that tackled the hot topic of open source technology in urban planning. The panelists described how mobile apps such as SeeClickFix or others, designed to help parents track the tardy school bus or find the right school for their kids, can help residents become better informed, more engaged and more satisfied with city services.

What particularly struck me, however, was a general, and rather universal, disdain for the current, even historic, methods of public communication, discourse and debate. The “town meeting” was particularly derided as a negative model of collecting input or reaching consensus. Even written materials were considered too daunting for many citizens to comprehend, or too time-consuming to engage with. Instead, various forms of digital data-gathering, interactive applications, or gamed engagements were presumed superior methods for both collecting information and finding solutions.

Don’t get me wrong, I am no great fan of the traditional public meeting, especially as it is practiced in fractious Boston. The usual advocates show up to speechify, many citizens complain about something not even on the agenda, and at least a few crackpots feel a need to present their pet proposals by waving drawings around or passing out a handwritten URL. But I couldn’t help thinking that the inevitable side effect of technologically mediated civic interaction, as envisioned by the panel, could serve to dumb down the public debate rather than elevate it.

Clearly the collection of information can be enhanced with technology: either through crowd-sourcing or other methods. And what public process isn’t better served by better information? Yet these methods are frequently, perhaps inevitably, backward looking: they show where people went yesterday, rather than help us imagine where they might want to go tomorrow. By their nature, programmed interactions can lead to highly scripted public engagement, which risks limiting the public dialogue to checking a box, rather than expressing complex ideas in an open forum. If we replace the public meeting with scripted online surveys, we’ll receive quantifiable information, sure, but limited information that could steer us wrong — binary inputs leading to binary solutions, when reality is much more complex.

In that sense the “town hall” format illustrates democratic public dialogue precisely because it is not scripted, mediated or otherwise constrained, by either anonymous technology (at best) or hidden censors (at worst). Is not the “town hall” the essence of a democratic — although occasionally tedious — responsibility? What would a national presidential election be without unscripted and unpredictable debates? I don’t believe that Americans, even young ones, have given up on voicing their ideas in a public setting; in fact, learning to do so is the responsibility of every citizen.

Indeed my greatest hope for technology is also my biggest fear. I worry that the kind of data that is quantifiable will become more readily, perhaps exclusively, considered because it’s easier to digest and present, compared to nuanced, human data that requires more subtlety of understanding. Our public dialogue, with all its nuances, could simply be overwhelmed by “conclusive” digital data: collected, curated and valued for its easily codified results. Who wants to take the time to deconstruct complex sentiments, much less the emotions they convey, when the digital data seems so cut-and-dried?

Digital data is extremely powerful and important, even vital to the future of our cities. But it’s only half of the conversation. We can’t just quantify the public process — we have to qualify it as well.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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Share the Road!

When Bike Lanes Contribute to the “Tragedy of the Commons”

June 24, 2014

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

I recently attended a public meeting to review plans to install the first Cyclotrack in downtown Boston, near North Station. The meeting was packed with articulate and outspoken bike supporters ready to proclaim and defend the ascendant urban bike movement. Mothers brought their small children to emphasize their right to kid-safe bike routes in the heart of the city.

The plans, displayed by the most progressive bike engineering consultants in town, showed an intricate pattern of one-way bikeways separated by buffer zones and vertical curbs, safely segregated from other lanes of roadways and further separated from pedestrian zones. Each mode of transit was optimized for its own particular needs. There were many questions: Why not have the bike lanes wider, so we can ride side-by-side? Why not make holding areas bigger so that bikes can collect at a red light and get a faster start? Why not synchronize the lights for the benefit of bikers? Why not separate cyclists from hapless pedestrians so they don’t walk in the bike lane?

Despite some rhetoric about the balance of streets for a wide range of users, I was struck by how single-minded the group was in optimizing the city for its newest set of users, long ostracized by the automobile. And yet how strangely devoid the conversation was of the importance of sharing public space, or any discussion of the visual quality of that public space. Or even the fact that pedestrians (yes, those who still walk) will number in the tens of thousands (the proposed lanes are adjacent to a major train station and sports arena) while cyclists will likely number in the hundreds.

Which brings me to the commons. The frequently cited “tragedy of the commons” is when individuals exploit the public realm for their own purposes without regard to the rest of society or the common good. In Boston, we have a Common, and it is a generously open place where one can stroll, ride a bike, skateboard or sit on a lawn. The project I observed in the presented drawings was no longer a common: it was a public space balkanized into rigid zones for special groups to satisfy their own specific needs.

Much federal funding is now focused on enhancing livability in the city, and this particular cyclotrack circling downtown Boston was to be funded by a TIGER grant application. But remember the last time we built infrastructure because it was practically free? We built ill-advised highways through our cities and cleared slums because, well, it was all paid for by the feds. Who could turn it down? Now there are funds for bike highways, but that doesn’t mean we should build them just anywhere.

I would argue for the “woonerf” approach to public places, where cars, pedestrians and cyclists must negotiate the “common” with mutual respect and courtesy, rather than each group fencing off a little piece to defend to the teeth against the others.

Dewey-Square

Dewey Square, Boston (Image courtesy Flickr)

Dewey Square in Boston is one example of a public place that — while not a woonerf per se — beautifully works for all modes of travel. Yes, there are places for vehicles and places for pedestrians and bicyclists, but the design and paving allows for a seamless public place to emerge, rather than separate places for individual modes. Today thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists pass each day through Dewey Square safely — without a dedicated bike lane.

I am a regular bike commuter, and while I am of the adventurous type who doesn’t mind mixing it up with traffic, I also love bike lanes. They’re great. But not every place is the place for a Cyclotrack. There are some locations where that approach defeats the purpose of creating a great public space. After all, the value of the “commons” is that it is shared — it is common to us all.

Banner image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Tried-and-True Urbanism

Sometimes the Oldest Tricks in the Book Are What It Takes to Connect City Residents to Economic Opportunity

May 12, 2014

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This was written as part of a series of posts prompted by Meeting of the Minds, who asked, “How could cities better connect all their citizens to economic opportunity?” Visit the group blogging page for links to this and other thoughts on expanding opportunities for city residents.

Boston has a reputation as an innovative hub filled with young, smart and well-educated entrepreneurs. With that comes an expectation that new innovations (think Uber, or Hubway) will drive towards new and novel solutions for improving transit and connectivity. But Boston is still a city deeply divided by race and income and even access to technology. The southern districts of the city comprise a concentration of lower-income neighborhoods and are characterized by low access to technology and transit, higher obesity and diabetes rates and lower rates of regular physical activity. Sadly, while the districts have lower income levels than the city as a whole, they are also more dependent on driving and have some of the lowest walking levels relative the rest of the city. When high-tech workarounds are being advanced for those without smart-phones or bank accounts, other, more traditional solutions that have worked for decades, even centuries, are perhaps the most innovative of all.

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Fairmount Indigo Line (Courtesy BRA)

Several focused initiatives are addressing this issue. First, the city is rehabilitating an historic, but underused, rail line that runs through the southern corridor with increased service at reduced cost. Four new stations will be opened, thus providing more convenient access from underserved neighborhoods to the major downtown employment centers and regional transit network. When fully implemented, the Fairmount Indigo transit line is intended to reduce auto dependency within the corridor and enhance the walking environment around the future stations with higher density mixed-uses and an improved public realm.

Metropolitan_Park_System_Boston

Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The second initiative is a city-wide campaign to relink the historic park system that remains as a legacy of the national urban parks movement of the 19th century. The Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston includes not only landmark parks, but also more than a hundred miles of multi-use parkways connecting them to each other and to the neighborhoods and cities of a growing metropolis. In order to enhance these parkways and extend their benefits to neighborhoods such as the Indigo Fairmont corridor, the city will identify missing links between neighborhoods, parks, libraries, schools, transit and recreation that, once established, will complete the greenway network. The new greenways and the historic parks and parkways will be updated to support walking, cycling or running along safe corridors. Community members that may have been discouraged from seeking alternative means of transportation will have safer routes that connect them to jobs, transit and educational resources.

The two initiatives combined are intended to address the inequity of public health and access to jobs and resources that are so visible in the City of Boston. Even while high-tech solutions to mobility are being advanced city-wide to serve tech-savvy Millennials, basic access to affordable public transit and safe alternatives to driving offer the residents of the South Corridor something with potentially longer-lasting benefits: an affordable, healthy alternative to an expensive dependency on vehicular use.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

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The Town-Gown Dilemma

Why So Many American Universities Hide Behind Their Walls, and Why They Need to Stop

April 15, 2014

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

The archetypal American campus — set amidst green lawns and spacious grounds — is largely the result of a singular act of Congress: the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890, which initiated the most prolific period of campus creation and created hundreds of land-grant colleges across the 50 states. These agricultural and engineering research universities were, with few exceptions, placed in rural settings appropriate for the study of agriculture and in places where government land was available.

But, over the course of a century, many of the universities placed on the peripheries of towns and cities (Manhattan, Kansas; or State College, Pennsylvania, for example) eventually became surrounded by the towns — now grown to cities — that served them. The result is a “town-and-gown” tension felt uniquely by American universities that once eschewed the city but now find themselves closely bounded by an environment their founders may not have anticipated.

As well, many younger Americans now aspire to live in cities, which is fueling a desire for a more integrated student experience: one that blends the benefits of academia with all the perks of an urban lifestyle. This is driving many of those land-grant colleges to create more vital student environments to compete with more urbane schools in well-established cities.

As a result, campus planners must frequently retrofit a haphazard, or unsavory, urban context, or invent one that is entirely missing. To do so, a university and its leaders must think outside of the academic walls, and must hone a new set of skills in partnering with local municipalities, land owners and developers.

In just one case, Kent State University, campus and town leadership had to overcome years of political divisions that began with the tragic shootings in 1970 and resulted in physical divisions when a highway was unadvisedly constructed between the campus and the town. After several years of planning and negotiation, a new retail district now reaches towards the campus while the campus esplanade and academic buildings stretch towards the town. Town and gown now connect at a new campus gateway, and an intermodal center anchors a $150 million mixed-use development that has brought office workers and residents back to the downtown. Planning led the way by balancing the requirements of TIGER transit funding, State DOT regulations, and developer interests with the city and university leadership.

By comparison, Brown University, once designated Rhode Island’s land-grant college, required a town-gown approach to manage development pressures that threatened to overwhelm the campus with inappropriate uses and out-of-scale development. Reaching out to the city and neighborhood, stakeholders created a forum for cooperation that resulted in new licensing regulations of bars, architectural design guidelines for new development and additional funding for private management of the retail district with university participation. 

Many universities are struggling with the complexities of working in close quarters with their host towns and cities.  A new approach to cooperative planning can result in stronger communities and a more attractive campus to attract the students and faculty of tomorrow.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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Think U.S. Cities Have No Place for Industry? Think Again.

Why the City of the Future Will Still Need Manufacturing Districts

January 16, 2014

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

As we imagine the future city, few would imagine smokestacks continuing to spew toxins in the air, as they did in the heyday of the industrial revolution. Just think of Pittsburgh today, a well-scrubbed modern metropolis with nary a smokestack in sight — unless they’ve been preserved to cleverly brand an outlet mall. But the city of the future cannot simply be a place for the endless consumption of goods or the production of bits and bytes.  People in this country — about 12% of the labor force — still produce things large and small, and to imagine that all this production should be shipped to lower-wage countries is neither practical nor advantageous to our economy.

As our “legacy cities” and once-gritty urban industrial areas proceed on a path to well-scrubbed gentrification, the remaining industrial jobs, those that weren’t shipped overseas, are increasingly forced to peripheral locations far from the blue-collar neighborhoods with the industrial skills to support manufacturing.  Likewise, tech-centric startups born in research universities that wish to translate their inventions into production are forced to relocate to new flex spaces in far-flung greenfield sites, forcing their formerly urban workforce into long commutes or forced decampment to suburban towns on the periphery.

Manufacturing needs larger pieces of land, land that is often too expensive in urban centers. This inherently separates the production process from the innovative circles that initially spawned the new technology, likely slowing the process of further innovation. The city of tomorrow needs to be a place that generates plenty of new ideas, certainly, but it also needs to be a place where these ideas are tested, prototyped and in many cases physically produced, at least in some quantity.

Artisanal production has found beachheads in places like Brooklyn, but what about not-so-artisanal production?  There are still places where full-scale production should continue in urban settings, to preserve proximity to the skilled workers that once fed the furnaces and production lines of our now mostly lost industrial past.  Think of the working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia or Cleveland, neighborhoods still full of people who are skilled in actually making things.  Combine them with the research universities and medical centers that are also embedded in the cores of those cities: these are the same institutions that generate new ideas and drive innovation.  While these two populations may never share the same bars, they are nevertheless two ends of the same innovation cycle.  And bringing them together in the production of new goods may be the quickest way to spur the innovation cycle further.

Of course, we are wary of bringing back the smokestacks, semi-truck parking lots and heavy rail infrastructure that make these types of industrial districts work.  They fail to fit into our post-modern notions of pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, live-work-learn-play neighborhood design.  Yet the city at-large is the unit of “live-work-learn-play”:  and the “work” part sometimes means big spaces that are not easily mixed with living.

In a future post, I’ll look at some types of manufacturing that are ideally suited to urban environments, and the ways in which to accommodate them. Regardless, we as urban designers and planners need to figure out what it really means to be a post-industrial city: to really fulfill its promise as a hub of innovation, we can’t go too far with the “post-“ without including a little “industrial.”

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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Meet the New Detroit

Detroit and Boston Are Headed in the Same Direction (And That's a Good Thing)

November 14, 2013

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

So you’ve heard that Detroit is broke and the city is falling into ruin? This is partially true, but look again.

Much as the French Quarter in post-Katrina New Orleans appeared relatively unscathed compared to outlying districts, Downtown Detroit has never looked better in the last 20 years that it does today. Buildings are spruced up and sidewalks are clean, and if you arrive on the weekend when one of three major league sports teams are playing and there is a major concert on the Riverfront (which happens frequently in the summer), Downtown Detroit appears as a bustling urban playground for suburban families and urban hipsters alike. Frolic along the renewed waterfront and fabulously clean river, or explore the architectural heritage of neatly repaired (although frequently vacant) Art Deco and mid-century architectural icons of unimaginable variety, set in a fantastically baroque street grid that emphasizes views corridors like a Hollywood stage set.

Thanks to millions of dollars of funding and investment from the likes of the Kresge Foundation, General Motors, and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, Downtown Detroit is a playground for the fun-seeking, the adventurous and the hip. Financial incentives have led to the creation of 1,500 new housing units in midtown and downtown in the last decade. Downtown residents, students at Wayne State and the Detroit Medical Center now enjoy a new Whole Foods of their own, and the Eastern Market is bustling with food offerings from local farms and artisanal breads, coffee, beer, cheese and meats.

Venture from the core, however, and experience the vast open spaces of a depopulated city that has lost over half of its population since its peak in the last century. Here, the residents that remain have lost schools, fire and police protection and street lights. The challenge of Detroit today is the challenge of many US cities tomorrow: what to do with tens of square miles of low-density suburbs that are expensive to maintain and no longer suitable to today’s urban immigrants. In this void of abandonment, entrepreneurs are experimenting with the conversion of vacant house lots — thousands of them — into gardens and farms, even forests. If the land can be purchased for the price of comparable crop land outside the city — and much of it is publicly owned due to foreclosure — then profits can be made with hydroponics, greenhouses and fruit trees. For Detroit, this is putting land that may never see homes again back into productive use and paying taxes, albeit reduced to support agricultural uses.

This new shape of Detroit is strangely familiar. The term “convergent evolution” refers to common features that evolved from different ancestors in response to a common necessity: for example, bird and insect wings, which evolved separately. Similarly, compare a largely depopulated Detroit of vast proportions (the city covers 142 square miles) to a stable New England metropolis such as Boston (48 square miles) with roughly the same population (636,000 in Boston vs. 701,000 in Detroit). While Detroit sprawled to 8 Mile Road (roughly eight miles from downtown), Boston grew slowly and much more densely in the core neighborhoods supported by transit. As the population grew, smaller outlying towns resisted incorporation and, later, became resistant to densification, by enacting laws to restrict density, buying up conservation land and establishing conservation easements that have become active rural farms.

For many urbanites such as myself, a weekend trip to the near countryside is about picking (or picking up) fresh produce, meats or cheeses from the various farms, as much as taking a hike in a conservation area or state park. Many of the remaining family farms outside Boston are involved in various direct-to-consumer co-ops or simple roadside markets that feature heirloom tomatoes, rare greens and organic meat and fowl. Farmers markets are featured in nearly every neighborhood of the city during the growing season.

So while I am picking fresh beets in Concord (13 miles from downtown Boston), Detroit’s new urban farmers are creating a similar experience within the extensive, and emptied, city limits of Detroit, recreating a ring of close-in “truck farms” for urban consumers who want to connect to their biome in a meaningful and healthy way. And these farms are creating opportunities for local entrepreneurs to create jobs and businesses.

So the shape of Detroit is converging on an image surprisingly similar to the one that Boston has taken centuries to create, through a completely different evolution. Meet the New Detroit: it looks more familiar than you might imagine.

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