Crumbling infrastructure, two hour commutes, sprawl, economic stagnation, and obesity! These are just some of the problems facing the many increasingly unlivable American cities today.
Cities like Portland, Oregon, hog urban planning’s limelight with their schemes to fix American urban living, but meanwhile, many lesser-known cities and unexpected urban planners are working on quiet revolutions.
Anthony Lyons is not your typical urban planning type. He didn’t go to planning school. He didn’t get an MBA. He went from studying Greek art to starting one of the nation’s first pre-paid phone card companies before turning around Claremont, New Hampshire, a New England mill town. He then became director of Gainesville, Florida’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Using his progressive outlook and eclectic background, Lyons is rethinking the role of local government in community life.
In four short years, following a theory of “simple innovation,” the CRA accomplished the unthinkable: 1,500 new housing units were built, property values increased more than 60%, fiber optic cables were laid in long-neglected neighborhoods, and a signature park on the site of an abandoned train depot began to be created.
Anthony Lyons and David Green, an urban designer from Perkins+Will and a professor at Georgia Tech in the College of Architecture, are teaming together to re-imagine how we address the challenges cities face in the coming decades. Here’s their recent conversation about what exactly the urban revolution might look like:
DG: We hear all the time that government is too cumbersome. “Simple innovation” sounds like it might be an answer. But now what? What are you doing to actually change Gainesville?
Downtowns all over the country are struggling.
AL: First, we posed a simple question, “What kind of city do we want to be?” It sounds stupid, right? At some level it is actually more stupid than it sounds, but very few communities ask fundamental questions because their problems have already gotten so complex. For example, in a lot of cities you get planners asking questions like, “How can we shorten commutes?” But without knowing what you want to be, at the most basic level, it is impossible to know where to start.
When we asked that question in Gainesville, the answer was clear. We want Gainesville to be a walkable and flexible city. Beyond that, we just want Gainesville to be cool. The question then is how do we make that kind of city? In many ways, we’re dealing with a blank slate in our underutilized downtown. While this is an incredible opportunity, it isn’t something unique to Gainesville. Downtowns all over the country are struggling. Gainesville is a city with good bones and has land ripe for redevelopment.
David, you’re the planner, what’s the trick?
DG: One thing? For new development?
DG: Small blocks. If you can’t walk in a city, then a city isn’t walkable. And small blocks tend to be the most flexible in terms of their long-term reuse.
AL: Fair enough.
Walkability is more about perception than reality.
DG: Seriously, it’s simple. On the point about walkability, people like to walk through cities that have small blocks. It is almost coded into our DNA. It’s about making progress when walking but it’s about the perception of progress in space. Think about Manhattan, it’s a great city, an unbelievably walkable city. Manhattan has small blocks. But even so, you feel different walking down different streets in New York. Anyone who has ever been there knows that walking uptown is far more enjoyable than walking crosstown, regardless of the distance. Why? Because the blocks in New York are long and narrow. You walk across the short side, 225 feet, when walking uptown and the long side, generally 600 to 900 feet, walking crosstown.
Think about it this way, if you are standing on 32nd and Lexington and someone calls you to get a coffee at 42nd and Lexington, you happily walk the ten blocks uptown. If that same person calls and she is on 32nd and 6th, you do it, but you aren’t as happy about walking the same distance crosstown, although its only four blocks. Walking uptown is more diverse, you cross more streets that take you to different places. Walking crosstown, on the other hand, is a haul to the next street. This goes back to the point above: when it comes to walkability, it’s more about the perception than the reality. This is true of walkable cities all over the world. Going further, look at the front of a typical suburban shopping center, nobody wants to be there. Huge distances between stores. Why do we continue doing this?
AL: That’s a tough one. But one reason is that old ideas get frozen in the complexity of land development regulations. All across the country, the documents that describe how cities are supposed to grow are growing amazingly dense and outdated. Take the block size issue, we are reworking our regulations to take out everything that makes blocks big, like huge parking requirements, large setbacks and unnecessary buffers that make development cumbersome anyway. So we’re supporting the goals of walkability and flexibility and, in so doing, incentivizing innovation by creating an environment conducive to creative solutions from the development community.
We’re actually doing this right now with our plans for a new science and research district, Innovation Square, near the University of Florida. The plan will be boiled down to only the few essential things we believe this district needs. We can’t possibly anticipate exactly what buildings will be needed in the future or predict where the market will be. We can, however, predict what conditions will support a more flexible Gainesville, meaning infrastructure that can easily accommodate many development scenarios. And we, the government and our regulations, have to be nimble while still fulfilling our obligations to the public.
What we’re doing now feels like a revolution.
DG: I can’t resist going back to New York. You can see exactly this principle at work in the original plan for Manhattan, a very simple document. It was a single map, really, it was just streets and blocks, everything else was blank, and it generated astounding complexity and variety over the last 200 years. Without ever changing the location of streets, blocks in New York have accommodated everything from farm houses to the Empire State Building. Granted, cities today confront a whole array of challenges that couldn’t have been dreamed of in the past. It puts planners and local governments in a difficult position. And too often we respond to complex problems with even more muddled action. I think the point here is that we need to parse issues for concise solutions.
AL: A couple of years ago we adopted a redevelopment plan for an industrial area adjacent to downtown. We started asking ourselves what kind of development might go there, housing or mixed-use? We figured out quickly that we were asking the wrong questions. We had no idea what the market could bear at that time or any time in the future, but we knew we wanted to create an extension of our downtown. So, we did exactly what New York did when they made their plan so many years ago?we kept it simple. The City Commission adopted a plan that laid out streets and blocks, small ones. And that’s it. You’d be hard pressed to find a City that has made a more elemental plan in the last 50 years.
DG: Why aren’t more of your peers thinking this way?
AL: I think it is often hard to ask why because it might mean that a lot of things need to change, that we might have even made some mistakes in the past. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep what you have. But that’s not me and that’s not what the CRA needs to be doing.
DG: So, what does the future look like?
AL: Now we are looking at issues of sustainability and asking why. We’re preparing a framework to redevelop areas of the city without preconceived notions of what is right. We know a few things, like we want people to be able to walk, but beyond that we are going to question every decision we make. The goal is to only create important things. We’re moving forward like a city at the beginning of its history, we are starting from square one. It feels oddly like a revolution.