The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis is an architect by training urban designer by choice. She works for Fuss & O'Neill and contributes to the American Society of Landscape Architects blog, The Dirt


Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.


The American Dream can be an urban dream, too

The classic image of the "American Dream" is, for many, a house with a big yard, 2 cars, and so on. Is that image still relevant, even as many people choose to live in walkable urban neighborhoods? Sarah Lewis argues that it's the ideals, not the trappings, that matter and remain strong.

Photo by Robert Gourley on Flickr.

During Inauguration Day, I found myself (an immigrant, a naturalized citizen) feeling reflective and full of national pride, regardless of what the President's next term may actually focus on, and regardless of partisan politics.

Has the "American Dream" really changed? Are Life, Liberty, and Happiness no longer noble pursuits? I say that the American Dream has simply gone from a set of ideals to an outdated consumer shopping list. I believe the ideals remain the same.

James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America, which was written in 1931, stated that the American dream is

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Notice "everyone" and "opportunity"—incredibly important words. According to Merriam-Webster, an opportunity is a favorable juncture of circumstances. So in its most basic form the American dream is a time or set of circumstances that makes it possible for all people to do something that gives them a good chance for advancement or progress. Possibilities, options, and choices for all.

This is where we, the urbanists, excel—economic possibilities, community options, and environmental choices. We are open-minded, fair, and adaptable. "We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework."

Economic possibilities

While it is often difficult for urbanists who are inclined to focus on the built environment to think about economics, given what we have all experienced professionally and personally in fiscal arenas over the past few years, this is changing. We have developer clients that cannot obtain loans due to the banking crisis and jurisdictions that have reduced funding due to local, state, and federal deficits. We need to concentrate is on creative thinking and problem solving more than ever—making available resources go further and be used more wisely.

We have had some real economic-based successes such as the Live/Work/Walk: Removing Obstacles to Investment initiative. In September 2012, the Federal Housing Administration revised rules that limited the cap of commercial space in mixed-use condo buildings to an updated 35% commercial use, with possible waivers up to 50%. While this is great for our walkable urban places, it does not yet address a jobs/housing balance that is required for full livability.

It is easy for us to encourage start-up entrepreneurs, telecommuting, and self-employment possibilities presented through digital technology. These occur in places and forms with which we are already familiar. Similarly, the physical manifestation of new forms of commerce (namely shopping) is taking shape in smaller footprint stores and increased online ordering with delivery. However, some of the reports say that this country is seeing a return to manufacturing and that alternative power is going to be a major employment sector in the coming years. What does this mean for our work to give equal employment opportunity across the transect?

Community options

Christopher B. Leinberger, in DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call, says "there is such pent-up demand for walkable urban development—as demonstrated by rental and sales price premiums per-square-foot and capitalization rates—that it could take a generation of new construction to satisfy." Combine these statistics with the population changes being brought about by the two largest generations in history—the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, more than 150 million people to dictating the housing market.

Both of these generations, for very different reasons, have similar housing needs. Yet "affordable housing" may as well be a four-letter word in many locations. It is often misinterpreted as strictly "projects" or subsidized apartment complexes instead of communities with options for elderly couples on a fixed income or recent college graduates in their first job can live.

Real affordability is a key factor—I'm sure even the infamous 1% are concerned with affordability as a concept or they likely wouldn't have reached that financial bracket! Today we hear terms such as "social equity" and "environmental justice," but is the underlying concept really any different than civic responsibility or citizenship?

We focus on transit-oriented development and smart growth in our conversations and work but infill construction only represents one-fifth of new housing construction according to the EPA's Office of Sustainable Communities Smart Growth Program. Greenfield construction is still over 50% of new homes in most of the country. This means that motor car ownership is still a requirement rather than an option making new housing inaccessible to a large segment of our population. How can we encourage more of our fellow citizens to realize that a suburban house does not represent the only dream?

Environmental choices

Transit-oriented development—it is unfortunate that it still exists as terminology or jargon rather than being standard practice for development throughout the nation. Compact, connected, and complete is the most environmentally sustainable form of development. We know that it is common sense. The closer all aspects of daily living are located to each other, the less energy used, the fewer emissions discharged, and the reduced damage to the climate.

The original allure of cars as part of the American Dream was freedom of movement. Do we truly have a freedom if it is not available to the many? Access to safe mobility should be a constant. We know our development patterns have hindered our choices but we all stood on our own two feet and walked when we were very very small and our parents and grandparents celebrated. Remember how excited we were when we got our first bicycles and were taught to ride? It's not trendy or old-fashioned, it's simply mobility.

At the same time automobiles have changed from Packard to Prius or Lincoln to Leaf so why isn't alternative fuel-powered transit becoming more even commonplace? While compressed natural gas buses are seen in cities fairly frequently, hydrogen fuel cells only emit water and even solar panels can provide power-assist. Invention is part of the American spirit but have we considered how our urban places might change to accommodate these fuel sources and technologies?

In short

Leinberger hits the nail on the head when he says, "...the creation of economically successful WalkUPs [walkable urban places] with high social equity is a huge challenge, possible the largest domestic challenge U.S. society currently faces. This research shows that economic success tends to lead to lower social equity performance. Many citizens would like to see high economic and social equity performance. This is the dual goal that urbanism must embrace."

It's the same dream, the concept endures, but it's not the one-size-fits-all that it had been interpreted to be. It's the option of numerous locally-owned shops versus a Walmart. Now is the time for us to be even more focused on our principles and remember that they, just as the ideals that founded this country, still apply—it's only the physical manifestation that has to constantly adapt.


Landscape architects envision a greener Chinatown

How could Chinatown be a greener and more livable neighborhood? Designers from the American Society of Landscape Architects and Fuss & O'Neill created a vision for an inter-connected series of green "complete streets," with new, safer bicycle lanes, a pedestrian-friendly "festival street," and a central hub for new street-level sustainability education programs right in front of ASLA's door (and below its green roof) on I Street.

All images from ASLA.

There's no time to waste. The city's complete street and green infrastructure guidelines, which are in place, will soon mix with more stringent stormwater policies that impose higher fees on private property owners that create runoff.

To green this neighborhood, any plan has to start with the streets—all of them. Beginning a new green neighborhood means tackling all the alleyways running off I Street that contribute to stormwater runoff. Just as Chicago has done with its innovative green alleys program, the neighborhood could put in permeable pavements along with underground cisterns in key areas that would preserve car access while absorbing water into the ground.

Along I Street, the intersections at 9th, 8th, and 7th streets could become green, permeable ones. What is now a source of huge amounts of runoff in the center of the streets could become a central place for absorbing rainwater into the underlying soils. Additional layers of stone or sand underground could also help boost absorption rates.

Crisscrossing an east-west system of green streets along Eye street would be a new north-south green "festival street" running down 8th Street, transforming an underused, garage-heavy street into an active, pedestrian-friendly zone.

Designed to be like a Dutch woonerf or pedestrian mall, this "B or C street," which means it doesn't get that much car traffic, could be designed to slow down car traffic so that pedestrians could move more freely between the National Portrait Gallery and the commercial complex at K Street.


Throughout this new green boulevard, which could be a pedestrian "arboretum," different materials would designate different realms—those for people or for cars. There would be no curbs, creating a flat plane for pedestrians. For 8th and other streets, redesigning the street so it can evolve may be the way to go. Kent Schwendy, senior vice president at Fuss & O'Neill, said many engineers want to simply lock streets into one use, but he argued that "streets change and their uses evolve. We have to let that change happen."

Where 8th Street meets I, new open grates would feature prominently so that "people could actually see that water moves through this area, even when it doesn't rain. This will help educate people about stormwater," said ASLA President Tom Tavella. But the street-level stormwater management systems proposed for I Street wouldn't be "lipstick on a pig," said Chris Ferrero, who runs urban planning and landscape architecture at Fuss & O'Neill but represent an "integrated series of events, a system."

Some 6 additional feet would be added onto the sidewalks, giving 2-3 feet for "green gutters along the curbs" and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters. Intermixed among the new green gutters would be rain gardens, which all inter-connect with the existing tree pits and proposed permeable pavement systems.

On 9th Street, creating a new "two-way cycle track," a dual-direction bicycle lane, actually creates an opportunity to create yet more green infrastructure. The bicycle lanes would be protected by a 4-foot "physical separation filled with plants, not just paint and bollards," said Tavella. That physical separator would not only protect bicyclists from car traffic but also help create a sense of place and add greenery.

The street may certainly need it: Wade Walker, Jr, head of transportation planning at Fuss & O'Neill, said the bicyclists he saw on that street were "up on the sidewalks, showing that they didn't feel safe being there."


Lastly, right in front of ASLA, there could be a new parklet, taking up 2 parking spaces, which would be designed to give people a place to sit and view the green roof education video and read signs about the new green features of the neighborhood. Throughout the district, "signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do," said Tavella.


According to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO/Executive Vice President, ASLA, the next steps will include pitching Fuss & O'Neill's concepts to stakeholders in the neighborhood, starting the fundraising process, and further refining the plans to meet the approval of the many DC government departments involved. Hiring landscape architects to turn the concepts into real designs also sounds like a next step, given the positive early feedback from the DC planning office.

At the end of the intensive, two-day design charrette, Chris Shaheen, who manages the public space programs with the DC planning office, said "we've tested many of these ideas here and there, but this brings it all together. This is what the city wants to do." The city knows, just like ASLA does, that really ambitious proposals like this are needed if the city will reach its goals of making 1.5 million square feet of public right of way permeable by 2016.

A version of this article was originally posted on The Dirt.

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