Here it is; my final blog of this series. There are many things that I could discuss today, but one trend in particular is on my mind.
It’shard to look anywhere these days without seeing someone touting the benefits of “being green”. During the pre-game show for NBC’s Football Night in America this weekend, the network turned off most of the studio lights at one point. They stated that by turning off these lights they were saving enough electricity to power an embarrassingly large number of single family homes for an embarrassingly long period of time. Erstwhile Bob Costas noted that NBC was doing this to bring awareness to “green” strategies, which worked because I’m now aware just how wasteful NBC really is.
Notwithstanding NBC’s attempts, some of the biggest potential impacts of the green movement can be achieved by the construction industry. And it is ultimately the designers and the municipalities themselves that must embrace these techniques if we are to ever fully realize this potential.
You’re probably most familiar with the concept of a green roof, that being a roof designed with living vegetation to help cool the structure and reduce storm water runoff (among other benefits). You may also consider the selection of high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment, or out-of-the-box ideas like geothermal cooling and solar panels.
The general public usually gives little thought to the supporting infrastructure however, even though site engineering can have significant impacts on many levels. Properly sitting a building on a site can help decrease construction costs as well as operational expenses associated with electrical service and heating/cooling. It can also help minimize the amount of infrastructure needed, which reduces the amount of raw materials needed and the pollution associated with construction equipment. Implementing creative strategies for managing site storm water can not only reduce capital costs, but reduce the strain on the surrounding public systems while improving the quality of water discharging into our lakes and streams.
A team of professionals needs to work together to create a complete program that includes these ideas from the beginning of a project. We then need to show our clients that there are real cost savings that can be derived from this approach in the near term.
Lastly, we need to press our local communities to embrace these techniques by adopting proven standards for design and construction. This cannot be just lip service either, which is unfortunately what sometimes happens when design plans are reviewed by building officials stuck in their old-school thinking.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your peak inside the head of an engineer over the course of the last few days, no matter how scary it might have been. I’ve touched on topics that will require changes in the way that some developers, architects, engineers, and government officials think. If you are a member of one of these groups I suggest you start thinking. Even if you are not, then let your local officials know how you feel about your community and hold them accountable to their promises. With yesterday being Election Day, I can’t think of a better time to start.
I wrote a few days ago about putting our infrastructure on a diet. The theory went that replacing unneeded travel lanes with bicycle and pedestrian facilities would not only reduce construction and maintenance costs but would provide amenities that would in turn help attract and keep the talented workforce needed in today's economy. Looking back at it I realized that I neglected to speak to a growing issue connected to pedestrian movement, that being personal accessibility.
Have you noticed those bright red or yellow mats that have started showing up at intersections around town? They're usually rectangular with little bumps all over them, and look conspicuously like the mats used to keep people from falling in the shower. (As we engineers are prone to do, these bumps are referred to as truncated domes to make them sound more official.) The purpose of these mats, officially referred to as detectable warning strips, is to provide a visual and tactile experience that let’s pedestrians know that they may be about to step in front of a bus.
This makes sense to me, as all people deserve a safe and accessible route when not driving. As a society we need to make sure that those with vision impairments or who are confined to a wheelchair have the same opportunities as anyone else. The nutty part of this recent trend is not the intent, but rather the insanity of implementation.
Our story starts, as many do in this country, in a court of law. A small and seemingly well intentioned group of citizens began suing communities for failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. These deficiencies certainly do exist throughout most community’s public spaces, most noticeably at street corners, and should be addressed.
Consent judgments in these cases, such as in Ann Arbor and Detroit, bind the communities to provide public spaces that conform to ADA guidelines. Fair enough, except that adequate time is never provided to correct the problems. Cities are instead required to undertake massive programs intended to wipe out the deficiencies throughout their jurisdiction in a matter of months.
When you’re talking about a city like Detroit, consisting of 140 or so square miles, this is a daunting task. Add to it the budgetary problems most municipalities face, especially related to transportation funding, and it becomes almost mind boggling.
But here’s the fun part: this isn’t even the most difficult aspect of the endeavor. Since the United States Justice Department is involved, lawyers (not engineers) are determining what is and isn’t compliant. When you consider that the ADA only offers guidelines, this means that we are now subjected to multiple interpretations of compliance offered by people not trained in the design or construction of infrastructure. This Pandora’s Box has led the Michigan Department of Transportation to revise their standard construction detail for ramps 6 times since February. (And I personally still think there is an issue that must be addressed.)
What is a City to do when they are told by lawyers to complete an immense task in a short time period with little funding, when only a few of us actually understand what the ADA guidelines are trying to accomplish? Waste a lot of money and effort.
If you’re involved in municipal planning or construction, or even are a private developer of a small shopping center you need to discuss this matter with a competent engineer as soon as possible. Getting it right the first time will save you thousands of dollars and provide everyone with proper access to mobility that is their’s by right. And if you’re a lawyer or judge involved in these types of cases you need to set realistic goals and understand the magnitude of the undertaking you’re discussing. You may even want to talk to an engineer…
In preparing to write the blogs that you’ve hopefully enjoyed over the last few days I reread some of the pages from Metromode’s archives. One person’s thoughts in particular caught my eye and got me thinking about how we tend to view development in southeast Michigan.
Richard Murphy wrote in July discussing the state of land planning in the region. "We want dense urban neighborhoods and pedestrian friendly, fine-grained downtowns where lots of different things are happening," he wrote.
This leads me to one of my biggest beefs with the general development climate today, that being the mostly horrific collection of local zoning ordinances governing the development (and redevelopment) of property. Most current zoning ordinances still appear to be cut for the same 1970’s mindset I referenced talking about transportation planning.
Look at most zoning ordinances today and what do you see? You see the industrial zone, the business zone, the low density residential zone, the high density residential zone, the commercial zone, etc. No wonder we’ve sprawled away from our established communities at such a rate. We were forced to get in our cars and drive around town to shop or go to work anyway, so we decided to buy some inexpensive farmland and live in the country.
Even if we live in older, denser suburbs we still need our cars just to make it through the acres of parking lots developers are being forced to build. To be fair, some retail developers live by the theory that more parking is better (sound familiar), but most don’t want the added expense if they feel the spaces are redundant. Most zoning ordinances appear to base parking requirements on the volume anticipated on the day after Thanksgiving, which mirrors the over capacity paradigm that governs our roadways.
There is a solution to this problem, and some communities with vision are working to nurture it by approving mixed-use developments with lower parking requirements. Mixed-use developments blur land use distinctions and place different densities of residential along side office, retail and commercial uses. Shared parking agreements mean less square footage of pavement and all of the environmental benefits that follow.
The result is an eclectic mix that cedes control back to the individual, who can pick and choose from any number of options (usually all within walking distance). In that vein think of our urban cores, when properly planned, as super-sized mixed-use developments.
In short, we need to promote economic development in all forms, especially if we’re going to create the diverse environment more and more people appear to desire. This starts with throwing out the old land planning playbook and looking at our communities holistically. Those that work to inspire creativity will succeed while those that don’t will certainly fail. We need to decide which group we want to be apart of before it’s too late.
We're facing an obesity epidemic in this country, and a perfect case study is found right here in Detroit. I'm not talking about the average person, or even my fingers as I try and write this on my Palm Treo, but rather our region’s roadway network. This network was originally designed and constructed in the early to middle part of the last century, when Detroit had 2 million residents and none of the freeways were even on the drafting board. Given the well documented change in the region's population, I’m lead to the following conclusion: our roads are fat, and a serious diet is in order.
I didn't come up with the term roadway diet, but whoever did is a genius. In short, the idea is based on the belief that many of our roadways have more travel lanes than needed to support the reduced traffic volumes they currently serve. In a roadway diet these redundant lanes are eliminated and the space used for on-street parking, dedicated bike lanes, and wider pedestrian facilities.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we're at a point where this approach is needed. As we struggle as a region to nurture companies that will diversify our economy we need to do everything we can to attract and maintain our talent base. We’ve all no doubt heard the statistics and read the articles that point to the increasing appeal of urban, walkable communities. Building and maintaining a comprehensive non-motorized system would appear to be one way we can give our talented workers what they want. Because many dense urban areas have limited public space available to expand pedestrian and other non-motorized facilitates, a reduction in roadway width is the only alternative.
This will take some major effort however, as many traffic engineers are stuck in old-school thinking. The old-school way of thought, for those of you not tuned in to the inner workings of transportation planning, can be summed up as follows: more is better. The more vehicles we can get through a road segment, the better off we are. And a larger number of travel lanes mean more vehicles per hour. "If we eliminated a lane or two," they might say, "we would reduce the roadway’s inherent capacity, which might be needed again some day."
This thinking might sound sane, even downright rational, at first glance. Indeed the theory makes good sense when applied to I-75 and I-94, where gridlock translates directly into road rage and lost GDP. It’s when you apply this thinking to Woodward Avenue or Michigan Avenue in the heart of the City that it starts to crumble. With the freeways in place the use of these roads has changed, as the main use now is to provide access to much of Detroit’s neighborhood retail.
Aside from the admittedly subjective appeal of expanded pedestrian spaces, there are also numerous tangible benefits of pursuing a roadway diet:
- Narrower roads are significantly less expensive to construct and repair.
- Bicycles would have a safe, dedicated lane in each direction leading to safer travel for all.
- Traffic would likely travel at slower speeds, also leading to safer travel.
- Narrower roadways allow pedestrians (especially seniors) to actually cross the street without that inner fear generated by the flashing orange hand.
- On-street parking would likely be expanded to areas where it is otherwise not allowed due to the constraints of space.
- Sidewalks could be significantly widened, providing opportunities for trees, benches, or outdoor dining.
To their credit, the City of Detroit recently adopted a comprehensive Urban Non-motorized Transportation Master Plan, and has started to seriously think about how all forms of transportation interact. This follows the lead of some enlightened transportation planners at the Michigan Department of Transportation, who are working to ensure that non-motorized transportation is considered during the initial scoping of every MDOT project.
We’ve even seen some high profile greenways under construction in the City lately, though most of these involve off road trails and bike paths. The real litmus test will come in the next few years as the Corktown and Mexicantown neighborhoods embark on an ambitious joint effort to incorporate bike lanes along nearly 15 miles of existing roadway.
This is certainly not the magic pill that will solve all of our problems and place Detroit at the forefront of the new, global economy. Then again, no one thing will do that. The only way to move toward that goal is to work a little bit at a time on a number of worthy ventures. (Remember the phrase 'Think globally, act locally?") Enhancing our open spaces by making them more pedestrian and bicycle friendly is one local step in our march to improving our standard of living. If we don’t take that step soon and put our infrastructure on a diet, we risk falling further behind. Remember, swimsuit season is right around the corner…
I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking. You surfed over to Metromode (like the loyal reader you are) excited to see who would be the next guest blogger. You read my bio and said: "I didn’t think engineers could write."
I respond to this blatant stereotype by saying that, well, you’re right. Most engineers don’t like to write, mostly because they can’t without including a Greek letter and a mathematical symbol or two. You’ll have to be the judge of whether I break the mold, starting with today’s discussion of the resurgent urban core.
If you’re a regular visitor to this website you no doubt have heard the growing chorus of people who have discovered an interesting change in the country’s demographics. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) projects that by the year 2030 approximately 70% of the residential households in our region will not have any children. Add to that the increasing life expectancy us younger folk (and yes I still include myself) will enjoy due to advances in medicine, and you’ve got something interesting brewing.
As life expectancy increases to well past 80 and the number of households with children shrinks, the percentage of a person’s life dedicated to raising a child will also shrink. A recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) study suggested that fifty years ago 40% to 50% of a person’s life was spent in this endeavor while by the year 2030 it will be closer to 25%. Think about what that means for a second. By the year 2030 nearly 75% of your life will likely be spent pursuing your agenda.
I think that it is the relationship of these statistics, as much as anything, that is leading to the recent resurgence of our nation’s urban cores. Unfettered by the responsibilities of parenthood, many professionals (young and old alike) are flocking to residential developments in larger cities. Even in today’s market, Detroit is leading the region in residential permits. Have you wondered why it seems like every single building in the City of Detroit is being converted into condominiums?
Living in a dense, urban center can provide immediate (and non-motorized) access to any number of needs. The ability to walk from your home to stores, restaurants, museums, bars, etc. is an amenity that many are finding they can’t live without. It’s even rearing its head in the suburbs, as communities like Royal Oak and Birmingham have seen very stable or increased residential absorption near their central business districts in spite of the recent housing slump.
Detroit has a great opportunity to capitalize on this phenomenon because of the magnitude and architectural importance of its available building stock. As Joe Posch blogged in October on this very site, "…the City of Detroit has an opportunity to become something really exceptional; a place unlike anyplace else in look, lifestyle and culture…" Preach on.
Many developers have caught on to this fact, as indicated by the number of new condominium developments announced in the last few years. As much as the City has improved significantly in the last decade there are still innumerable opportunities that can, and need, to be exploited.
Over the course of the next four days I’ll touch on a few of these opportunities, along with a few development trends that my co-workers and I have noticed. I’ll also hopefully provide you with an insight that you might not have access to regularly. As a design engineer working on the implementation of some of the projects you read about, you’ll get to hear my thoughts on what it takes to actually go from concept to construction, and where our community leaders might better support the economic redevelopment of the region.