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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 2 -- FEBRUARY/MARCH 2001
 

Repairing the Damage in Traditional Urban Places

By Stu Sirota

Until the middle of the 20th century, Americans lived in communities, large and small, that were comprised of genuine neighborhoods and downtowns. Each was designed so residents could get around easily on foot and public transit to reach all the necessities of daily life. These traditional urban places, or "TUPs," provided a "human scale" environment in which there was frequent and meaningful interaction among members of society. This provided the foundation for a sustainable network of American communities that, by and large, were healthy, stable and close-knit.

Everything changed after World War II, however, as Americans became enamored with new, automobile-oriented, "bedroom" suburbs. Made possible by an unprecedented new network of highways, these places were designed to separate home, work, shopping and even schools into isolated zones accessible to each other only by driving. The middle class abandoned TUPs for car-dependent suburbs, taking with them the nation's economic and social capital and leaving behind a huge void of neglect and disinvestment.

When the federal government stepped in to help, it came in the form of disastrous "urban renewal" projects that only intensified the problems. Instead of restoring established neighborhoods, block after block was razed to make way for elevated urban freeways and parking decks needed for the growing legions of suburban commuters. TUPs that were spared a quick death from the wrecking ball often suffered a slow, agonizing one from the effects of highway noise and blight. To accommodate increasing traffic, local streets were frequently widened and often changed into one-way, high-speed thoroughfares at the expense of sidewalks and street trees. New, "modern" buildings constructed in TUPs were given sterile, fortress-like appearances since they were designed with the expectation that suburban residents would drive to them and park. This further discouraged pedestrian activity and downtown retailing, ultimately accelerating the downward spiral of decay.

Today, however, after a half century of abuse, the first real glimmer of hope has appeared for TUPs. Interest in moving back to TUPs has surged recently as people have begun to search for an alternative to the long commutes, social isolation, cultural sterility, environmental degradation and other problems they are increasingly finding in car-dependent suburbs. As the demand for living in TUPs continues to climb, though, there are significant obstacles that have kept their potential from being realized. Persistent fears of crime and substandard schools are serious problems that continue to dog many TUPs and keep the middle class at bay.

While those problems must certainly be addressed, there are clear, achievable steps that can be taken by both the public and private sectors to repair the damage inflicted on the physical fabric of TUPs. These steps could go a long way in helping these communities once again become highly sought-after places to live.

First, immediate action must be taken to help stabilize TUPs and protect them from further degradation. This involves identifying and altering existing policies that run counter to maintaining the pedestrian-oriented, mixed use character of a TUP. For example, in many jurisdictions, traffic engineering departments are concerned mostly with maximizing traffic flow, typically at the expense of pedestrians and local businesses. Policies can be introduced that ensure all current and future transportation projects create a balanced environment for pedestrians, businesses and cars. This could be accomplished through new standards requiring wider sidewalks, fewer road lanes, lower speed limits, and smaller turning radii at intersections. Many jurisdictions have started to adopt such guidelines, and the highly respected Institute of Traffic Engineering (ITE) has even developed new standards for TND design that employ these principles.

In the case of land use policy, local planning commissions also tend to favor automobile-oriented development by requiring suburban-style buildings with deep setbacks and large parking lots. In addition, many have adopted zoning regulations that restrict mixing uses, even though TUPs, by their very nature, are mixed-use. New standards can be introduced that not only allow, but require redevelopment to be compact and mixed-use, and set forth urban design guidelines that reestablish and reinforce the pedestrian-oriented character of the TUP. These guidelines should also require that new development relate to the street, instead of turning its back on it, in order to create a safe and secure environment. Maryland has taken the lead on this by developing new "Smart Codes" that provide model ordinances local jurisdictions are encouraged to adopt (see: www.op.state.md.us/smartgrowth/smartcode/smartcode00.htm).

Another vexing problem is that TUPs, often desperate for any new economic development, are usually quick to demolish historic buildings or entire blocks to make way for suburban-style development or parking lots. Local officials often fail to recognize that the historic fabric of their community is one of their greatest assets. Decades of neglect have left many buildings in disrepair or covered over with tacky modern facades, which lead to misconceptions that they are obsolete and not worth saving. However, careful restoration of these irreplaceable resources can be the key to renewed civic pride and attracting new residents and businesses that want to locate in this type of environment. New policies can be implemented that restrict destruction of historic buildings while creating incentives to restore and reuse them. Again, Maryland's new Smart Code includes a Building Rehabilitation Code Program, specifically designed to streamline the process of restoring historic buildings. New Jersey also implemented a similar code and has seen a significant increase in restoration activity.

Adopting such policies can begin to reopen doors that have been closed on TUPs for many years. Next month, I will address the second step toward repairing the damage inflicted on these communities -- applying new TUP-friendly policies toward creation of a long-term, comprehensive redevelopment plan.