A Formula for Finding the Right Elementary School


My son is going to start kindergarten next year. That means that my wife and I are presented with an issue that is commonly faced by young families in the city at about this time: should I stay or should I go?

Philadelphia, by and large, does not have great schools. The district‘s overall rating on Great Schools is a three out of ten. There are a few decent elementary schools, but they are all located in very expensive neighborhoods, and some are so crowded that they’ve started having a lottery for kindergarten classes, so there’s no guarantee that your kid will get to go to that school just because you live in its catchment area.

On the other hand, Philadelphia’s suburbs are home to some of the best schools in the country. On Niche’s 2018 Best School Districts in America list, three of the top 25 are in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Unfortunately, most of these areas lack a lot of the amenities that we’ve become accustomed to in Philadelphia: their walk scores are lower, and the commute times back to Center City would be higher.

So, how do we objectively weigh the desire for great schools with the desire for a walkable environment? With math! All I needed was a formula to determine what areas were worth looking at in greater detail. Through a process of trial and error, and through lots of discussions with my wife, I determined what factors are important to us in a location, and weighted those factors based on which ones mattered most. So here are our variables:

Great Schools Score

Great Schools rates nearly every public and charter school in the country on a ten-point scale. The rating is based primarily on state-level standardized tests, so comparing schools across state lines isn’t exactly apples-to-apples, but the fact that it covers so many schools still makes it one of the best measures for determining school quality. In some areas, student progress and college readiness are also taken into consideration when assigning a school a rating.

Presence of a Playground

As I began looking at schools in my neighborhood, I was surprised to find that most of them don’t have playgrounds. I wonder if this is an aspect of our suburban upbringing, but my wife and I had just assumed that all elementary schools had playgrounds: between the two of us we attended five elementary schools, and each of them had its own playground (several of the ones I attended had one for smaller kids and a second one for bigger kids). In addition, all the schools that I looked at outside of Philadelphia have their own playgrounds. For my wife and I, although we haven’t thought of a lack of a playground as a deal-breaker, we have heavily weighted schools that have a playground over those that don’t.

Walk Score

Walk score is a measure of the walkability of a neighborhood, or how easy it is to get to goods and services on foot, without getting in a car. Areas that have a walk score over 70 are considered “very walkable.” Most neighborhoods in Philadelphia have a walk score over 90, which makes them “walker’s paradises.” Of all the neighborhoods my wife and I have lived in, the one that had the lowest walk score that we considered acceptable was about 80, so I’m cutting off areas with a walk score below 80 from this analysis.

Median Home Value

I gathered the median home value at the census tract level from the 2015 American Community Survey. I’m using this as a measure of affordability, so generally, the lower the median home value, the higher the score. That being said, there are many neighborhoods in Philadelphia where housing prices are extremely low because they are less desirable neighborhoods. Therefore, I cut off the extra points for cheapness at $100,000.

Commute

I work five days a week in Center City Philadelphia. My wife work from home a few days a week, in Center City a few other days, and in Conshohocken one day a week. She also doesn’t drive. So, for us, it is very important to be able to get to Center City via transit, slightly less important to be able to get to Conshohocken via transit, and much less desirable if we have to drive to either of these places. In some cases it would be quicker to drive somewhere rather than take transit (especially to Conshohocken), but unless driving will save us more than a half hour or so, we’re probably going to opt for transit.

Church

My wife and I are Mormon, and Mormons are assigned to a congregation geographically based on their address. We currently are assigned to the South Philadelphia congregation, and we really like it. While we would be alright going to another congregation, if it were between one place outside of the congregation’s boundaries and an equally good place inside of them, we would go with the second.

With these variables in mind, I analyzed 251 addresses and 209 schools in the Philadelphia area, and came up with the following formula:

Score for a given address = (a – 1) + (if (b = “Y”, 1) * 8) + (((c – 80) / 20) * 7) + (if (d > 100,000, ((636,100 – d) / 536,100) * 6, 0)) + (if ((e – 30) > f, ((70 – f) / 65) * 3, ((70 – e) / 64) * 5)) + (if ((g – 30) > h, ((70 – h) / 54) * 2, ((70 – g) / 46) * 4)) + (if (i = “Y”,1))

Variables:

a = Great Schools rating for the school whose catchment area contains the address

b = Whether or not the school has a playground (Y/N)

c = Walk score of the address

d = Median home value for the census tract that contains the address

e = Commute time from the address to Center City office via transit

f = Commute time from the address to Center City office via car

g = Commute time from the address to Conshohocken office via transit

h = Commute time from the address to Conshohocken office via car

i = Whether or not the address is within my church congregation’s boundary

Then, these being schools, I gave them a grade, and I graded on a curve: those addresses whose scores were 90% or more of the highest score got an A, those from 80-89% got a B, etc. Here’s what that looks like on a map:

Only two schools get A’s: the Greenfield School and the McCall School. These two schools cover much of Center City. They have high Great Schools ratings (7/10); both schools have playgrounds; areas in both catchment areas have walk scores as high as 100/100; they’re within walking distance of the Philadelphia offices and have good access to regional rail stations, which means good access to Conshohocken; and parts of their catchment areas are within my church congregation’s boundaries. Really, the only downside to these areas are cost; parts of these school’s catchment areas are some of the most expensive neighborhoods in Philadelphia. For my family, in order to get into a good school in a good neighborhood, we will probably have to live on the cheaper edge of a more expensive neighborhood, and even then, we’re probably going to get less house for our dollar than we’re getting right now.

The B schools are a little different: they include the Independence Charter School in Center City, the Penn Alexander School in West Philly, and the Penn Wynne School in Ardmore. They also have high Great Schools ratings (6, 10 and 10 respectively); all have playgrounds; while lower than the A schools, their catchment areas all include places with walk scores above 90; commutes for Independence and Penn Alexander are somewhat similar to those in Center City, and the part of Penn Wynne’s catchment area in Ardmore has good regional rail access to Center City and is a fairly short drive to Conshohocken; unfortunately, only Independence would be located within my church congregation’s boundaries. Throw in that Penn Alexander has a lottery for its kindergarten class and you can see why these otherwise quality schools aren’t quite as strong of a match for us.

Beyond these schools, the good options for my family dry up pretty quick. Most other schools in the region either have low Great Schools ratings or are too far from town to make commuting the way we want to reasonable.

So, will we stay or will we go? Probably stay. Ardmore is still a possibility, but based on my analysis, a really good school in Philly is a better fit for us than a great school out in the suburbs. Now I just have to figure out how to afford Center City rent.

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Gentrification and Market-based Zoning


A few months ago we moved back to Philadelphia from DC. Washington is a very nice place, but we only make a little bit more than the average American household (which makes about $52,000 a year), while the average income in DC is about $90,000, which means that we couldn’t afford anything. For instance, in Philadelphia in 2013, we lived 1.4 miles from the center of town for $1,200 a month. When we moved to DC, we lived 4.5 miles from the center of town for $1,350 a month. There were several reasons why we chose to move back, but largely, it was because

tumblr_nszkv8xzkd1tdscmao1_500

When we came back to Philly, we knew that we wanted to live south of Market Street, and beyond that, we didn’t care too much. We spent several weeks looking all over South Philadelphia and toured a number of apartments including a very nice one in Point Breeze. Several neighborhoods in Philadelphia are experiencing rapid gentrification, but Point Breeze is in many ways at the forefront. If you don’t know what gentrification is, it’s basically when rich(er) people start moving into a poor(er) area, redeveloping it and driving up rents and property taxes, and driving out existing residents. Though this is strictly speaking an economic issue, because minorities in America tend to live in poorer neighborhoods, it often affects them disproportionately.

Planners, architects and developers have a mixed relationship with gentrification, and so do I personally. I mean, I don’t want to hurt poor minorities, but I also want access to affordable housing close to where I work (by the way, we ended up deciding against Point Breeze; we found a cheaper apartment in South Philly). But why do I have to go to neighborhoods like Point Breeze to find affordable housing in the first place? Why can’t I find housing close to my office in Center City? The obvious answer is that because it is too expensive, but why is that the case?

An interesting argument was presented in this article by Kriston Capps of Citylab. Capps points out that tech, a common boogeyman in the discussion of gentrification in San Francisco, is actually not the problem; it’s anti-development/NIMBY residents of rich neighborhoods. These folks hold much more influence in City Hall than their poorer neighbors, so they can get zoning ordinances and other restrictions passed that keep development from happening in their back yards. But people still want to move to San Francisco, developers will still build new housing to provide for them, and since they can’t do it in the rich neighborhoods where they actually want to live, they develop in the closest poor neighborhood. John Mangin, in his article The New Exclusionary Zoning, says, “Don’t blame in-movers or developers for gentrification—they’d rather be in the high-cost neighborhoods. Blame the exclusionary practices of people in the high-cost neighborhoods.” Mangin argues that in addition to zoning, the lengthy approval processes required by many desirable cities increases the cost of building housing, as well as increasing the time to develop it, and privileges large, savvy, politically-connected developers over smaller neighborhood builders.

Capps proposes that development should be expanded in richer neighborhoods, amending zoning laws and making decisions that are best for the city (or the region) and not necessarily for individual neighborhoods. Mangin argues that we need to pursue policies that either increase the supply of housing or decrease the demand for it in poorer neighborhoods. This includes allowing some development (because not allowing any development simply drives up the prices of the existing housing stock until they cost too much for the current residents and are bought up by more affluent move-ins), while at the same time advocating for more development in the high-demand areas where rich NIMBYs are keeping new folks from moving in. Governments could also impose regulations on new development that would help existing residents, such as requiring some of the taxes assessed on new development to go toward investing in the neighborhood; or creating something of a cap-and-trade market for density, where if people want to exclude development from their neighborhood, they have to help pay for it to happen elsewhere.

What is argued by both of these authors is that zoning is out of sync with housing demand, particularly in rich areas, leading to spillover of new move-ins in poorer neighborhoods. So what would it look like if a city’s zoning were rewritten to reflect market demand? Let’s take a look at Philadelphia.

Below we have the existing housing density, in units per acre, of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Statistical Region by census tract. Density is concentrated in the City of Philadelphia, as well as some of it’s suburbs, particularly the string running southwest through Delaware County down to Wilmington, Delaware, and beyond; and running southeast through Camden County, New Jersey. (The land use categories shown correspond to the densities required for different types of transit service, according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute: 0-2 supports no transit, 2-4 supports regional rail, 4-7 supports minimal local bus, 7-9 supports intermediate local bus, 9-12 supports light rail, 12-15 supports rapid transit, and over 15 supports frequent local bus service)

Density Existing-01

This is our baseline, and lets us know how many housing units already exist in an area. The next thing we need to know about a tract is the median housing value.

Median Value-01

This shows us that housing value is highest along the Main Line; in some of the suburbs of Wilmington; and around New Hope, PA and Moorestown, NJ. Now that we have the median value, we can multiply that by the number of housing units to get an idea of the total value of housing in a tract, which will indicate to us the demand for housing in that area.

Total Value-01

We see a similar pattern to median value, as well as a slight concentration in Center City, Philadelphia (while the median value is a bit lower than in some of the rich suburbs, there are so many more units that the total value is quite high). Now that we have a measurement for the demand, we need to translate that back into housing units. The average value of a home in the United States is $175,700, so we can divide the total value of each tract by that number to get an idea of how many units that area should supply.

New Density-01

What we can see from this is that many of the suburbs, particularly in affluent Montgomery County, are not pulling their weight, and should take on a greater share of the region’s new development. Housing density in Philadelphia remains high; however, taking a look at the change in units per acre reveals some interesting patterns.

Change-01Philly Change-01

Moving from the edge of the region to the center, we see that some of the outermost communities could actually afford to lose a few units per acre. However, by and large, density should increase as you get closer to the city, particularly along the affluent Main Line to the west. At the same time, there are several small cities in the area that are overbuilt, including Pottstown, PA, Norristown, PA, Upper Darby, PA, Darby, PA, Chester, PA, Camden, NJ, Salem, NJ, and Wilmington, DE. As we look at Philadelphia itself, the neighborhoods of Northeast and South Philadelphia should grow modestly, while the more affluent neighborhoods in the northwest should grow more steeply. This is followed by a ring of overbuilt areas in North and West Philadelphia, as well as Point Breeze and parts of South Philly. However, Center City and University City are underdeveloped, and should grow considerably. This underdevelopment is what is fueling the gentrification of areas where the green and the red meet, such as Point Breeze, Mantua, and Kensington.

Percent Change-01Philly Percent Change-01

It is also interesting to look at the percent change, rather than total units per acre, to tell you something about the degree to which these neighborhoods will be affected by change. Some areas, such as Piedmont, DE, and New Hope, PA, would only see a modest change in the absolute numbers, but because their existing densities are so low it may feel like a large shift. Others, such as Center City, would see significant growth in total units per acre, but because their existing density is already high it will not have as significant an impact on the area. And while there was a lot of red on that first map, the area most impacted by a decline in density is actually more limited when you look at the percentage, which the heaviest impacts in Norristown, Darby, Chester, Camden, and North and West Philadelphia.

So, who would support a plan like this and who would oppose it? The most obvious answer is that rich homeowners, both in the city and the suburbs, may not take kindly to a plan like this. They would see this, not entirely inaccurately, as a threat to their property values and their way of life. Mangin advocates several “smaller scale reforms that preserve a space for sub-local [neighborhood] politics while altering, sometimes subtly, the incentives that political actors face and the procedures by which they arrive at decisions,” to try and get richer residents on board as much as possible.

Initially, many residents of poorer neighborhoods might also oppose it, because zoning by demand would mean severely downzoning several poorer areas, which may look to some residents like “benign neglect” or, even worse, the sort of problems that arose with urban renewal and the use of eminent domain in the middle of the last century. This sort of “depletion” or “neighborhood triage” has been strongly opposed by neighborhood groups who want to preserve their communities and see it as a method for removing poor residents to make room for future development. This sort of opposition was seen in the defeat of the “Team Four Plan” in St. Louis (If you want to pay for it, you can read Patrick Cooper-McCann’s recent article on it in the Journal of Planning History here, or if you’re a cheapskate like me you can get the gist of the article by reading his master’s thesis here for free). It would be important to implement this strategy in steps, such that new housing in desirable areas was available early so that anyone who wished to move out of poorer neighborhoods may have an opportunity to do so, while those who wished to stay behind could do so, safe in the knowledge that restrictive zoning would prevent new development from infringing on their community while they would be allowed to stay there as long as they wished.

The people that a plan like this would really be good for would be middle-class people wanting to move in from outside the city or to move up to a more desirable neighborhood. As it is now, the urban middle class is squeezed between neighborhoods they can’t afford and neighborhoods where they are seen as unwanted agents of change and distress. Opening up more development opportunities, both in Center City and in densified suburbs along the Main Line and elsewhere, would provide for more opportunities for affordable urban living without the guilt of hurting those lower down on the economic ladder.

Gentrification is a hard nut to crack, but it’s important to look at it as a problem of restricted housing supply in affluent areas not being able to meet the demand for development, which then spills over into less affluent neighborhoods. Changing our zoning laws to better reflect the demand for housing in desirable neighborhoods would help ameliorate gentrification and allow more options for middle-income families in cities. While efforts like this would face an uphill battle against entrenched interests, bureaucratic roadblocks, and NIMBYism, in the words of John Mangin, “The options are pretty clear: build more, or stand by as low-income and middle-class people get priced out of ever-wider swaths of the country.”

Where can I find a decent townhouse?


I live in an apartment. And that works for a lot of people – limited maintenance, the flexibility to move more easily, the lower carbon footprint, the often greater access to urban amenities and transit – all good things. But I don’t want to live in an apartment long term. I want to own my own place, and not have to worry so much about noisy neighbors. So am I looking for a single-family home in the suburbs? If you’ve ever read this blog at all, you know that’s not the case.

I want a townhouse. For me, it seems to be the best of both worlds. It provides for owner-occupied housing without the associations and fees of condos. It eliminates upstairs and downstairs neighbors altogether, and thicker walls better insulate from sounds next door. Yet it is still an urban form of housing which takes up less space than a suburban single-family home, and requires less maintenance (because, let’s be honest, I never want to mow a lawn again in my life if I can avoid it, that’s what the Parks Department is for).

In Census terms, a townhouse is an attached single-family home (in that it is owner occupied, but immediately adjacent to other units), and in much of the US, anything that meets that definition is called a townhouse. But I lived in Philadelphia for four years, and as a city full of single-family attached homes, the residents there make distinctions within that definition. Here are some of the types of single-family attached units.

The True Townhouse

Townhouses in Gdansk, Poland. From Wikipedia.

True townhouses are built individually, one by one, and are distinct from the other townhouses on the street. They have “sandwich walls,” meaning that the adjacent buildings don’t share a wall between them, but have separate walls built right next to each other, which provides for excellent sound insulation. As many of these are essentially custom built, they have historically been associated with the upper classes. The “Brownstones” of various cities on the East Coast are part of this group.

The Rowhouse

Rowhouses in Leeds, UK. From Wikipedia.

Rowhouses (terraced houses for the British types), on the other hand, are usually mass-produced and have similar, if not identical, appearances. They have “shared” or “party walls” between them and often share the same roof line, unless they are in a particularly hilly area. Because they were mass-produced, they are more often associated with the middle- and lower-classes, and with industrial cities where housing was needed for their swelling populations.

The Twin House

Twin houses in Philadelphia. From weknowphilly.com.

As far as I can tell, the name “twin house” is sort of a Philadelphia thing. In other places they might be called duplexes or semi-detached houses. A twin house is basically a set of just two rowhouses with a gap on either side. This allows for a little more space and privacy while still preserving the density of the houses listed above. The floorplans of the houses are usually mirror images of each other, and they may have similar exterior features, although in Philadelphia it is fairly common for neighboring twin homes to use distinct trim colors or small architectural accents. Twins (or semis, as they are more likely to be called there) are the most common dwelling type in England.

For me, all of these dwelling types are great. They are owner-occupied and have enough space for a family while still being low-maintenance and urban. However, if you look on Zillow or other real estate websites for townhouses, you’re also going to get a lot of junk, like:

Patio Homes

From Wikipedia.

Patio homes have shared walls, so you can hear the noise of your neighbors. They are set in extensive grounds that are often maintained by a home owners or condo association. They are often located in suburban or exurban communities. Therefore, they have all the disadvantages of rowhouses, condos, and single-family homes, all in one inconvenient bundle.

Two Suburban Houses Stuck Together

From builderresourcegroup.com.

Is there really any advantage to this housing type? At least with the patio home (which often has some overlap with this one), they’re usually in a pleasant, albeit remote, location, and you have someone else doing your maintenance, even though you have to relinquish some decision making power to the association. But where I’ve seen these has mostly been in bland, undesirable suburbs, and you have to do your own yardwork. Are they really so affordable that there is any benefit to them over just going all the way for a suburban house?

Attached Garages with Houses Hiding Behind Them

From redfin.com.

I feel like I’ve seen more of this housing type in the west, and particularly on military bases. It sort of assumes that streets are for cars and no one is ever going to walk to this place, so why even pretend that a front door is something someone would need to see from the street. All the problems of density without the advantages of urbanity.

Add to that the fact that some real estate agents seem to think that “townhouse” just means “small house” and you have a lot to weed through when looking for a townhouse. I should know, because I weeded through all of it.

I went on Zillow and searched for my dream house (townhouse, three bedrooms, two baths, under $300,000, with a Walk Score over 70) in every state. Here’s what that looks like:

Townhouses-01There are various reasons why a state would have a low score. Some just aren’t very walkable (Texas, Maine). Some aren’t very affordable (California, Massachusetts). Others just don’t have a lot of townhouses. But what I found really interesting was that there is a corridor, running roughly from Trenton, through Philadelphia and Wilmington and to Baltimore, where there were just tons of affordable, walkable townhouses.

These cities are walkable because they are old, traditional cities that were built at the scale of the pedestrian; and they are affordable partially because they have a large supply of housing, and because the demand isn’t as high as some neighboring markets like in Washington and New York. My question was, why is the supply so high here, and not even in nearby places like Pittsburgh?

That question largely comes down to history. The Trenton-Baltimore corridor was one of the earliest parts of the country to industrialize. Like the cities in the north of England, their housing was built quickly to serve an enormous influx of new residents coming from the countryside or other countries for jobs, which is why both of these areas have a lot of rowhouses. Pittsburgh, although it is known as a major industrial center, developed just a little bit later, after the rowhouse had gone out of style as it was associated with tenements and poor working conditions. While Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses, Pittsburgh is a city of small, narrow, vertically-oriented single family homes. It’s like you took Philadelphia, put a couple of feet between each rowhouse, threw in some crazy topography, and that’s how you make Pittsburgh. Even though they are technically not townhouses, the homes of Pittsburgh are similarly urban, efficient, and low-maintenance.

Pittsburgh. From post-gazette.com.

So, could I live in a single-family home? I guess, as long as it functions like a townhouse. As long as it’s in a neighborhood where I can walk to services, where I’m not bound by a condo association, and where I don’t have to mow a lawn because there’s a decent park nearby, it works for me.

Canals, Houseboats, and Urban Design on the Water


My wife is a professional writer and blogger, and on her recommendation I would like to welcome any new readers. My last post really blew up and was featured on Gizmodo, several Curbed sites (although Seattle‘s was very nice, Philadelphia‘s was probably my favorite), and many others. If you’re here because of that article, hello and welcome! I blog mostly about urban design, sometimes about articles I’ve read or cities I’ve visited, but mostly about weird, loosely-constructed ideas that I take well past their logical conclusion. I hope you enjoy as I continue this trend. Now, on with the show!

Canals were built in the world’s earliest civilizations as a way to control flood waters and irrigate land. Later canals were built for overland transportation. Major cities of the mercantile age, such as Venice and Amsterdam, have entire networks of canals. Later, during the industrial age, transportation canal networks sprung up in the industrial cities of England such as Birmingham and Manchester, and in early industrial towns in the United States, such as Lowell, Massachusetts. But when it became cheaper to move goods overland via train than via canal, the latter stopped being built, and many of the existing canals in cities like New York and Boston were filled in and paved over (this is the story of just about any place called “Canal Street”). And while canals were still built for international shipping, irrigation, and, later, for rich people in Florida to be able to park their yacht in their backyard, the urban canal network was no more.

Urban Canals-01Personally, I find canals very appealing. They allow people to get closer to the water, create opportunities for alternative transportation and recreation, and also make for great urban design opportunities. This is probably why I tried to shoehorn them into urban design projects I worked on in Boston and Rio de Janeiro. The thing is, the urban canal networks were a product of their time. They were needed in order to drain land for development and to provide networks for merchants and industrialists to move their goods. But recently, I’ve been thinking: while the goods-moving ability of canals is overshadowed by modern freight delivery methods, they still work for draining water, and in the future, we’re going to have a lot more water to drain.

Sea LevelCutting canal networks would allow for some inundation while protecting prioritized areas. It would also allow more options for carbon-free travel. Imagine kayaking to work, or instead of carpooling, taking a canoe. It could provide another way to right-size overly wide streets. Imagine taking a four-lane road down to two for cars with two for boats in the middle. And maybe being closer to the water would let people create a greater connection with the water and what they have to do to care for it. For example, I love Philadelphia, but it is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, mostly because the citizens just don’t take care of it. A new canal system in Philly would initially require constant cleaning just to keep it unencumbered. But hopefully over time people would want to keep them clean and would want to make better use of them, and maybe we could become like Stockholm, where people have a strong connection to their water and where they keep it clean enough to swim in.

Broad St FinalHowever, a few canals versus an incoming ocean will only do so much. That’s why, in the Dutch village of Maasbommel, a group called Dura Vermeer built 50 floating houses. The houses sit on a hollow concrete foundation that floats. This allows it to rise above flood waters. The houses are attached to two mooring posts, which allow them to move vertically while staying in the same spot horizontally. Flexible conduits allow the houses to receive utilities regardless of the water level.

From ft.com

If you look at these things, they’re basically part on land, part on water. But there are other floating structures with mooring posts that don’t need to be on land at all:

Houseboats Ah, yes, houseboats, home to hippies and people who insist on calling it a galley when they know darn well it’s just a kitchen. But houseboats are often much more adaptive than their land-based cousins. They can rise and fall with the tides or with flood waters. Not all, but many are actually maneuverable, so you can move to a whole new location in the same house. They are often smaller and use less energy than houses on land, and when arranged along both sides of a pier they create these great, intimate little alleys on the water. Although many still exhibit the sort of self-built hippie style for which they are known, newer ones are being built that reflect contemporary architecture.

Lake UnionThe problem with houseboats today is that they are usually built around a single pier connected to the land and not to other piers. This means that to walk from one pier to the next, even if it is right behind yours, you have to walk up onto the land and then over to the next pier. In that way, they actually function like cul-de-sacs, and not like a traditional urban grid.

Cul-de-sacsBut there’s no reason that you couldn’t have connecting piers, creating a pedestrian-friendly network on the water. Take the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union. Their several buildings and platforms are connected by piers which fully enclose buildings and water alike, with boats all along even enclosed parts of the piers.

CWB-01“That’s great, Munson,” you might be thinking, “but I was really excited about that kayaking to work thing earlier, and how would I do that if my houseboat were in one of those enclosed areas?” Well, you could design connecting piers that were raised above the water level, allowing traffic to pass underneath. But I think that a more effective way would be to have drawbridges.

From heatherwick.com

This one in London is quite nice, but they could of course be simpler. A small enough bridge with a counterweight attached could simply be lifted by pedestrians rather than having machinery do the work. The bridges would be down under normal circumstances to allow pedestrian movement, and whenever a new houseboat comes in or there is a delivery boat or something, the draw bridge could briefly go up. These systems of flexible utilities, houseboats, and connecting piers could create entire floating neighborhoods. But this sort of new infrastructure development would cost a lot of money, driving up the price of this sort of a development. It might only make sense in areas with extremely high real estate costs. So where would it be worth the money?

NYCSF-01There are places in this world where land prices are so high that it becomes a major barrier to development. But who says you have to build houses on land?

And these neighborhoods don’t have to just have houses. Other land uses already exist on the water. Istanbul has restaurant boats on the Bosphorus, and the United States Navy regularly sets up offices on barges if landside space is tight. And speaking of the Navy, aircraft carriers are the perfect example of working on the sea, since they are essentially giant floating repair shops for planes.

There would be issues to address with this type of development. There’s a reason there aren’t large houseboat communities on the East Coast like there are on the West, and that is hurricanes. I’m not sure how you would protect this type of development from them, although I’d be open to suggestions. Tsunamis are another concern. Since tsunami waves grow taller once they hit shallow water, moving these neighborhoods further out to sea could address that, but at that point you would be driving up the cost of extending utilities. It would take a lot to make these places fully autonomous from land-based utilities, although if you want to get creative with solar panels and composting toilets, the sky is the limit. And, at least in the United States, you would have to get it approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, who has jurisdiction over navigable waterways. But, as opposed to the floating cities ideas that some people (mostly architects) propose, these strategies could be implemented slowly, one at a time, over a long time frame. So get out there, dig a canal, build yourself a houseboat, and laugh heartily at the rising seas.

Report on NPR about car-free families


The Falkowski’s “Bike Dozer” comfortably carries three. From newsworks.org.

I heard this story on NPR this morning and had to share it. It comes from NPR and Newsworks’ Elizabeth Fielder, and follows families in Philadelphia that are living without a car, even with two kids. They are getting around by safer and more eco-friendly forms of transportation: transit, bike, and on foot. Steven Falkowski modified his bicycle to be able to carry his two children, and Nate Hommel takes the bus with his daughter.

Up until a few months ago this was me and Holly. I broke down and got a car because my two-hour-one-way transit commutes to Wilmington were making it such that I was getting home at 7:00 and had maybe two hours before Lars had to go to bed. We considered moving to Wilmington, but since the Mormon church there isn’t transit accessible we would have had to buy a car anyway. We try and use the car just for commuting (or for picking up larger items like our Christmas tree), and within the city we still mostly walk and take transit. I like that I now get home before 5:00 most days and can spend more time with my family, but if I were ever to find myself not working in Wilmington, the car would be gone. For me personally, driving is stressful, with the constant risk of causing serious injury to myself or strangers, let alone the significant costs of repairs, gas, etc., and the fact that it’s near impossible to find parking on the street after 6:00. I’d just as soon take the bus and be able to spend time focusing on my kid rather than on not crashing into things.

TOD Without the T?


In this post from a few days ago, Eric Jaffe discusses a discovery made by Daniel Chatman at UC-Berkeley: that effective TOD (by his definition, development that reduces car trips) has very little to do with access to rail transit. A number of factors are more important, including “lower on- and off-street parking availability; better bus service; smaller and rental housing; more jobs, residents, and stores within walking distance; proximity to downtown; and higher subregional employment density.”

Jaffe calls this TOD without the T. I’m inclined to call it traditional development, or small towns, or simply urbanism, regardless of the size of settlement. By the same token, there can be T without the OD, in the form of park and rides or other underutilized transit opportunities. You can find both, as well as the entire TOD package, in Philadelphia’s western suburbs.

Ridley Park Station. T without OD. From panoramio.com.

I ride SEPTA’s Wilmington Line to work every day, and on this line, you see a lot of the T without the OD. Most of the stations, while within the boundaries of first-ring suburbs, or even satellite towns such as Marcus Hook, these rail stations are largely divorced from high-density housing, retail, or other marks of TOD. Of all the stops on the line, only Chester and Wilmington feature anything more than parking lots and small sheds for stations (and a number of stops don’t even have these amenities).

Gay and High Streets in West Chester. From panoramio.com.

North of this line, you can find West Chester, a great example of the OD without the T. West Chester is an interesting example of a place with a large population (college students) that is poor enough that many can’t afford cars, yet aren’t reliant on manufacturing or similar large land uses for basic sustenance. Since students have small families, if any at all, they can use smaller, denser housing. And since West Chester is an old, traditional community, it has retail uses mixed within its residences, and residences within its commercial core.

Plaza in Ardmore, on the Main Line. From panoramio.com.

Further north, the older (and more well-off) communities of the Main Line are great examples of the whole TOD package. Though there are some glorified park and rides, the mainline has a string of small towns–Narberth, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Radnor, Paoli, Malvern, Downingtown–with a full mix of uses and range of densities centered on their train stations.

An area can be very nice without access to rail transit, but they are out on their own and not part of a larger regional entity. West Chester, for instance, feels very cut off from Philadelphia when compared to the Main Line. This is the problem with many New Urbanist developments, where they are internally very walkable but if you want to go anywhere else you have to drive. TOD allows you to have walkable urbanism in the suburbs while still being linked to the advantages of the large city. Transit without the development allows you to access the city, but doesn’t give anyone a reason to come out to your town, so the relationship is very one-way. While walkable urbanism should be a goal regardless of regional issues, the TOD form is the best in regions where connectivity between cities is a major goal.

The great green way – NY Daily News


Small parts of Broadway have been converted into pedestrian walkways and lounge areas. Why not go all the way?

Pedestrians taking to the street in Times Square. From nydailynews.com.

Jeff Speck has spent a bit more time in the planning and urban design limelight recently, in large part due to his new book, Walkable City. In this article for the New York Daily News, Speck makes a bold proposal: since the pedestrianizing of Times Square has gone so well, why don’t we turn the whole of Broadway into a greenway?

He makes some interesting points. Broadway is largely a redundant street in the street grid of New York. The regularity of streets allow for multiple routes to get anywhere, and eliminating Broadway as a vehicular route would inconvenience very few people (relatively). Manhattan is one of the few places in America that is dense enough to support a long pedestrian mall, and shop owners have proved that they don’t need to rely on car traffic for business, as is the case in so many other cities.

It would be a challenge though. As Speck notes, many of the pedestrian malls in the United States have failed. Chestnut Street in Philadelphia is still recovering, and K Street in Sacramento gave up and allowed cars back a few years ago. Broadway is also such a long street that it would be impossible to come up with one unified design, and you would need a variety of treatments every few blocks at least. Originally when I read this article I was very skeptical: I don’t think you want grassy fields in Times Square, the pedestrian traffic would turn it to mud in a matter of hours. But while Times Square and areas south may need to focus on hardscape with some trees, areas further north could be greener. I don’t know if this is something that could really ever be implemented, but it’s a great idea for a graduate level urban design studio.

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