With classes underway, a conveniently timed conference in nearby Bellevue gave me the opportunity to skip school the last two days and mingle with over 400 planning professionals. The Washington State chapter of the American Planning Association hosted its annual conference with the theme of ‘Wicked Problems, Smart Solutions’ and gave me great insight into the field right as start learning to work in urban planning. I started networking with both students and practitioners, and the event was well organized with presentations on a myriad of current issues.
A keynote presentation provided some hard facts for one of my justifications in switching from architecture to planning: population growth and change. Mitch Silver, past APA president, opened with the stunning fact that the U.S. population will be 570 million by 2100. Over just the next 50 years, the population will grow by 124 million and demand up to 50 million new housing units. This massive growth certainly ensures job security, but planners will face many challenges in the decades ahead.
Right now, 41 percent of children are born with unmarried mothers and by 2050 the majority of households will only be single persons; in 2030 there will be up to 27 million surplus single family homes. An aging population is shifting towards independent living that requires housing redesign and transit support; an estimated 600,000 Americans over age 70 stop driving each year. These trends will affect levels of service and needs for schools, parks, medical care, and other urban services, and will see planners dealing with excessive housing in the burbs as young people move to central cities.
Planners from around the state talked about their communities’ projects on enhancing the triple bottom line of environment, equity, and economy. In Shoreline, just north of Seattle, an interdepartmental ‘green team’ put together a climate response action plan and an attractive website for tracking progress on emissions, water usage, and other metrics within the city. In Kirkland, citizens voiced their want for green services, initiatives, and products from local businesses; in response, city staff gained credibility with LEED accreditations and started a Green Business Program to certify vendors that use locally and responsibly sourced goods. Ellensburg, which owns its own gas and electric utilities, built a renewable energy park and started testing wind turbine models to reduce distribution costs and capitalize on the region’s natural resources. Ellensburg has also focused on preserving its historic building stock.
Planners from California presented their work with the Sustainable Transportation Analysis and Rating System, or STARS, that measures access to goods and services over time at the urban level. In Santa Cruz County, planners established the goal of making key destinations accessible within 30 minutes via all modes, and especially for the disadvantaged young, elderly, and low-income groups. Analysis included transit routing and sidewalk quality, and found that 28 percent of all car trips were only 5 minutes or less, making certain areas ripe for walking and biking improvements. The system also considers, health, safety, economics, and other factors, and tracks performance after projects are built. Several other communities on the west coast have started using all or part of the system.
The traditional engineering approach to streets for the last 60 years has been to move as many cars in as little time as possible. This has, of course, led to cities built for the automobile, but the last decade or so has seen a tremendous reversal in some U.S. cities. Several planners talked about specific street improvement projects that serve people, not machines. In Kirkland, a study to improve the Juanita Drive Corridor looked at improving pedestrian and cyclist safety while preserving the area’s historic character, improving slope drainage, and increasing visibility for motorists. Crosswalks will be improved with flashing beacons to warn drivers and a number of road diet modifications were considered on different stretches of the road.
Spokane intends to slow down traffic on part of its major north-south arterial, Hamilton Street, and create an economic development zone with increased density allowances and a focus on the pedestrian realm. Nearby Gonzaga University is partnering in an effort to bring more ground level retail to the area for its students. However, the project only focuses on a small part of the long corridor that is primarily used by suburban commuters.
In Tacoma, the Pacific Avenue Streetscape Project aims to rejuvenate a mile-long stretch of the city’s downtown. With a massive 100-feet right of way, the effort will bring numerous stormwater rain gardens, a return of historic light fixtures that hang between buildings, and 150 new street trees. The benefits of urban trees are well documented, with one study finding that shoppers hang around retail areas longer when there are trees, and of course the cooling, habitat, and aesthetic values. Another project feature is Silva Cells, which are soil framing systems that allow tree roots to grow out without buckling pavement and can also contribute to stormwater containment. The city is also considering a tax credit program for businesses that adopt the maintenance of a rain garden.
Two-wheeled transport has undergone a renaissance over the last few years in the U.S., with several major cities playing catchup with Europe’s impressive bicycle infrastructure, including Copenhagen’s. But despite Seattle’s growing share of people biking to work, now at four percent of commuting trips, a large segment of the population interested in biking chooses not to because of safety concerns. So many Puget Sound communities are w0rking to build comprehensive bike networks that make biking safe for people of all ages and abilities.
Seattle has had a Bicycle Master Plan since 2007 and manages a number of on-street bike lanes, while neighborhood activists have helped patch together much of the city’s network. Residential street ‘greenways’ are friendly to bikers and leisurely pedestrians thanks to signage and pavement upgrades. However, for long distance trips to work or shopping, the city is planning to upgrade preferred routes with separate cycle tracks. The ideal major routes are on flat, straight, and long arterials that have high speed limits, so separation from traffic is necessary for comfort and bringing out the tentative riders. Additionally, the city is working on redesigning chokepoints like bridges or intersections that can discourage a casual rider from taking a trip from the start.
Recent years have also seen a boom in bike sharing services across the U.S. The concept is not the same as renting for recreation, but rather for completing short trips that cannot be fulfilled by transit in dense areas. Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare program was the first in North America, launching in 2008, and other cities like New York have had high-profile system launches lately. Seattle is finally stepping into the bikeshare arena with the non-profit Puget Sound Bike Share. Opening in May 2014, the system will start in Seattle’s densest neighborhoods including Downtown, Capitol Hill, and the University District. From there system is planned to expand across King County to total 220 stations and 2,200 bikes. Stations will be located on both private property and public right of ways, and the system will be the first to require helmet usage through vending machines at the stations. Cities with bike shares have actually seen bike sales increase as people look to purchase their own, and collisions and fatalities are surprisingly low as motorists and cyclists get accustomed to each other.
Sea Level Rise
Related to the previous post about resilient communities, many levels of government throughout the state are looking at protecting coastal communities from rising tides. Data from the National Research Council projects the average sea level rise on the U.S. west coast will be in the range of 20 to 55 inches between now and 2100. Since the industrial revolution, sea levels have already risen 7 inches. Global warming both expands the vast volume of ocean water and contributes to melting glaciers, so it is imperative to address warming causes, but adaptation is also playing a role in waterfront cities.
The main threat is from increased coastal erosion of land and inundation of shoreline buildings and infrastructure. In Washington, increased pressure on tectonic plates could contribute to tsunamis and earthquakes, so communities need to have multi-layered defenses and responses to disasters. Many of Washington’s 3,347 miles of coastline are flat with nowhere to run in a tsunami event, so hazard planners are starting to look at vertical evacuation methods like artificial dunes and tall beach structures that can be entered in emergencies. However, challenges to implementation include getting people’s attention on long term events, property rights, and political will for funding.
The Department of Ecology’s Coastal Training Program works to educate professionals on shoreline management. Washington Sea Grant is an organization working to develop statewide coordination and pilot studies for increasing resiliency among coastal cities and counties. Part of their mission is to develop a uniform flood, tsunami, and general hazard map for the state’s 14 coastal counties.
The increasing interest in local food has brought both battles with code enforcement and embracing of the practice by local governments. As described in another post, the Puget Sound has been fairly progressive in this area. A planner from Federal Way, along with a UW PhD student and an organizer from conservation group Forterra, presented on Federal Way’s efforts to balance food production and quality of life.
The city was approached by a church organization asking if they could grow for donations to food banks, but there almost no language in the code regarding agriculture. So the city set out to clarify what their vision was. They found urban agriculture is not driven by commercial interests, but rather concerns for health and community building. Other considerations were landscaping standards, setbacks for structures like greenhouses and chicken coops, and what land-use activities like sales and processing could occur. In any city, concerns will include smells, aesthetics, signage, and traffic from sales operations, but it is up to each municipality to craft their own rules. Federal Way did not touch the issue of marijuana growing, but now has a number of community gardens and private gardens on house lots.
The conference also led to my first visits to Bellevue, a city of 120,000 across Lake Washington from Seattle. It was only incorporated in the 1950s and has been characterized as a booming suburban center, and it is evident from pedestrian explorations. Skyscrapers are scattered downtown with original strip malls and parking lots inbetween, and the city was clearly built for cars with its huge streets and blocks that must be at least 600 feet long. And yet, the downtown aesthetics are pleasant enough with wide sidewalks, plentiful public art, numerous plazas, and a pedestrian corridor that stretches from a transit center with many bus routes. The scale and landscaping of the city hall, across the street from the massive conference center, are impressive but also a representation of the city’s sprawling nature.