Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Urbanism


Want the urban lifestyle? DC's best corner is...

Imagine a generic urbanist. Someone who loves walkable, transit-friendly, mixed-use cities. Without knowing where this hypothetical person works, where their friends live, or how much money they might have, what single DC street corner would be the most ideal place for him or her to live?

Put simply, what's DC's most livable urban address?

14th and P is the epicenter of everything. Image from Google.

The answer is 14th and P, NW.

There are thousands of great places to live all over the DC region, but to find the singular best corner, one has to apply some pretty strict criteria.

The ideal corner will be within easy walking distance of all 5 Metrorail lines. It will be on a major commercial main street, within one block of a supermarket. It will have bikeshare access, and it will be near a wide variety of shopping and dining amenities. There will be a park nearby, but it need not be quite as close as the supermarket.

The Metrorail requirement eliminates everything but Downtown and the southern end of Dupont & Logan. The Capitol Hills and Columbia Heights of the world are wonderful, but comparatively less well-connected.

The major grocers in that area include the Safeway at 5th and L, the new Giant at O Street Market, the Safeway at 17th and Corcoran, and the Whole Foods at 14th and P.

5th Street and O Street have fewer other amenities nearby. Chinatown is close, but not right there. They're less desirable than the other two.

Corcoran Street has all the amenities, but it's on the very outer edge of walkable from the Orange & Blue Lines.

That leaves P Street. It's at the middle of all 5 Metro lines, on 3 major bus routes, has a bikeshare station, and is within a block of the best cycletrack in the city. It has a grocery store, a CVS, a hardware store, and tons of restaurants right there. Logan Circle park is a block away. All the riches of the 14th Street corridor are in easy reach. It's perfect.

And that's why 14th and P is the city's most livable urban corner. Others are nice, others may be better for you given your circumstances, but 14th and P is the prime address.

But what do you think?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces

How to make better streets, quickly and cheaply

Changes to our urban landscape can seem daunting at times. But reader thm points us to this TED talk in which New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan shows how New York quickly and cheaply changed its streets, sometimes with only some paint, to improve the experience for all users.

Some of these changes we already have here, such as bike sharing and parking-protected bike lanes. Others, like BRT, are in the planning stages. But are there places in the DC area that could benefit from conversion into a pedestrian plaza?


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, exceleconomic 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 evermaking 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 developmentas demonstrated by rental and sales price premiums per-square-foot and capitalization ratesthat 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 historythe 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 factorI'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 developmentit 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 applyit's only the physical manifestation that has to constantly adapt.


"Green Day" urbanism gets people excited for the real thing

People sometimes complain that "New Urbanist" or "town center" develop­ments like Downtown Silver Spring are fake and sterile. But these projects are to urbanism as Green Day is to punk rock. They may not be "authentic," but if done well, they can get people to seek out the "real stuff" later on.

Photo by jonathanpatenaude on Flickr.

That's what happened to me. When I was 13, I became increasingly curious about the outside world but had no real means to explore it. Then two things happened that would change my life.

First, I got a copy of Green Day's Inter­national Superhits! And second, my friend had a birthday party at the Washingtonian Center, a "lifestyle center" in Gaithersburg.

Between my parents, who listened to adult contemporary, and my friends who were getting into musical theatre, I was anxious to hear music I could actually relate to. Green Day was pretty easy to find: on the radio, on television, and in the halls of Blake High School, on t-shirts and patches sewn to jean jackets.

Their songs were fast and catchy, though as a preacher's kid, I was initially horrified by the foul language. But I'd spent plenty of mindlessly dull afternoons like the ones Billie Joe Armstrong described in "Longview," and was relieved to know someone else felt the same way.

Meanwhile, I'd never been to Washingtonian Center before the evening of the party. Walking felt like a punishment, something I did on those "Longview" afternoons when I didn't have a ride to any place more interesting. On those days, I'd walk 45 minutes to the shopping center closest to my parents' house, down streets with look-alike 1950's ranch houses and all while not seeing another person. It was boring, but slightly better than being at home.

Washingtonian Center Lake; The Kid In The Blue Wouldn't Stop Staring At Me
Washingtonian Center in 2006.

At the Washingtonian Center, walking suddenly became something fun. We could walk from the movies to an artificial lake, then look in store windows on our way to dinner. And we could do all of this while being around and looking at other people. Not only was it better than sitting at home alone, but it was more fun than going to the mall.

I didn't question Washingtonian Center's authenticity at first, perhaps because I couldn't yet tell the difference between it and a traditional downtown. But I definitely wondered why Green Day called themselves a "punk band," which didn't seem to describe a group who played stadiums. Punks, I imagined, were more likely found in places like Phantasmagoria, the grungy and now-closed punk club in Wheaton.

But both of these experiences served as a sort of gateway to more "legitimate" pursuits. It's because of Green Day that I made friends with similar taste in music who would later introduce me to "actual" punk bands like Fugazi or invite me to see their band play shows in punk houses. (The webcomic Nothing Nice to Say jokes that Green Day fans get into real punk out of embarrassment for liking Green Day.)

And it's because of Washingtonian Center that I began to explore downtown Silver Spring before it became a new "town center" in its own right, and taking Metro into the District to wander around there. I've always been interested in architecture, but it's trips to places like Washingtonian Center which got me excited in the spaces between the buildings, which is why I'm currently in school for urban planning.

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
People may call downtown Silver Spring "fake," but it gets people excited about urban places.

Much as I wouldn't have gotten into real punk if I hadn't listened to Green Day, I wouldn't be so excited about walking down real city streets had I not walked down a fake city street first. So for that reason, I'm not bothered when a new development is compared to a small town or an Italian piazza. Some of these places are like the Good Charlotte of urbanism, unable to be even a good fake downtown.

But like a good punk song that can teach you to see yourself and your world differently, I'm convinced that a walk down a good urban street can do the same, whether it's in a city or a suburb, old or new.

For more on the topic of punk rock and New Urbanism, check out this post from Scott Doyon comparing the two.

Public Spaces

Urbanism is good for everyone, especially kids

We assume that kids belong in the suburbs, where they've got yards to play in and great schools to learn in. But good, urban neighborhoods can produce good kids as well.

Photo by the author.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote in The Great, Good Place that teenagers are a litmus test for a neighborhood's "vitality":

The adolescent houseguest, I would suggest, is probably the best and quickest test of the vitality of the neighborhood; the visiting teenager in the subdivision soon acts like an animal in a cage. He or she paces, looks unhappy or uncomfortable, and by the second day is putting heavy pressure on the parents to leave. There is no place to which they can escape and join their own kind. There is nothing for them to do on their own.

What do teenagers need? The ability to get around without a driver's license, for starters. A 15-year-old who can get around town on foot, on transit, or by bike or skateboard isn't just a convenience for their parents, who don't have to shuttle them around after school. They're given the tools for their own independence and self-discovery.

So the ideal place for a teenager is probably a neighborhood with sidewalks and bike lanes, ample public transit, and one which has schools, shops, and hangouts located within close range to home. That sounds a lot like Takoma Park, Bethesda, or below-the-Beltway Silver Spring. Rockville, with its new town center and excellent bike network, isn't far behind.

Scott Doyon at the PlaceShakers blog also notes that these places give kids the valuable opportunity to make mistakes:

For a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get intoand solveconflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.
Of course, kids who can actually get around on their own two feet might do some unsavory things. Some of the kids who walk to downtown Bethesda, for instance, might've gone to buy drugs at the movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. But it's not like the car-bound kids in Germantown and Olney weren't doing that, and it's a lot harder to hide destructive behaviors when you're not in a two-ton vehicle.

Five Skater Boys, All Talking But Not To Each Other, On Chestertown Street
Kids talking on a stoop in Kentlands. Photo by the author.

The first time I was allowed to go anywhere by myself was at age 8, when my family lived in Georgian Towers in downtown Silver Spring. I was only taking the elevator from our apartment to the lobby, but I was so excited I screamed the whole way down. Pretty soon, I could walk to my friends' apartments, across the street to Woodside Park, around the corner to 7-Eleven, and so on. This ended a few years later when we moved to Calverton, where there's very little within walking distance. But I still knew that I had the power to do things on my own.

My 12-year-old brother, meanwhile, has spent his entire life in Calverton. When he's not at school, he's at home playing video games, but I've noticed he doesn't have a close group of friends because they don't live nearby. Last year, I took him to walk with my former boss, Councilmember Leventhal in a parade in Kentlands, one of Montgomery County's few truly walkable neighborhoods.

"Isn't this great, Tyler?" I asked as I took him around Kentlands' Main Street, where we could see kids ducking into shops and hanging out in a little green. "Kids your age who live in this neighborhood can walk to school, to friends' houses, and to the movies! Wouldn't you like that?"

Tyler looked at me like I'd said the sky was green. "Why would I want to walk?" he replied. "Mom and Dad can just drive me there."

This Kid Will End Up On The Hood Of My Car (edited)
Outside Blair High School on University Boulevard. Kids who have to walk in a place like this likely can't wait to drive. Photo by the author.

As a result, I tend to see most of the issues I write about, from better bike trails and infill development to skateparks and curfews, from the perspective of kids like my brother. I don't just think that good urbanism can make better communities. I think it makes better kids: confident, independent, and more aware of the world around them.

We talk about how urban neighborhoods are drawing young adults and senior citizens alike. But they have a lot to offer kids and teenagers, as well. That's the great part about good urbanism: it can work for everyone, regardless of age or situation.


True urbanism must come with a big tent

Urbanists in the District and elsewhere often find themselves at odds with longtime elderly and working class residents who challenge our positions on transportation and planning. This unnecessary animosity is caused by a narrow-minded concept of urbanism that antagonizes families, the elderly and long-term residents.

Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Many urbanists seek greater density by revitalizing the built environment. These urbanists advocate for multi-use, human scale developments and multimodal transportation options, taking for granted that the in-migration and density that follow are good.

While density by itself naturally appeals to younger, more footloose residents, such architectural determinism casts a blind eye to those excluded from the benefits of city life when nothing changes but the built environment.

The recent news that the District's black majority is rapidly slipping away has raised the anxiety many feel about such "hipster urbanism."

Progressive ideas about cities would command a larger constituency if we instead practiced a big tent urbanism, starting from the premise that cities aren't just denser suburbs.

Rather, cities are organisms that function fundamentally differently, expanding the range of real freedoms available to their citizens. Prominent amongst these are the freedom to interact with people of diverse backgrounds, the freedom to participate in culturally rich and deep communities, and the freedom to meet everyday needs in the safety and convenience of your community.

Density in and of itself doesn't necessarily generate these benefits, as the early 20th century experience in U.S. cities demonstrates. The Achilles heel of hipster urbanism is architectural determinism which assumes that changes to the built environment lead to a better life for all residents.

Big tent urbanism seeks revitalized urban spaces, but only as a means, not an end. The end is to ensure that the people living in cities are actually experiencing the real freedoms that should follow from urban revitalization.

The Animosity is There

The division between "hipster urbanists" and their discontents is clearly evident, manifesting itself primarily in concerns about gentrification.

Two days after Vincent Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary for DC Mayor last year, Post columnist Courtland Milloy castigated the "newly arrived creative class" that largely supported Fenty:

Watch them at the chic new eateries, Fenty's hip newly arrived "creative class" firing up their "social media" networks whenever he's under attack: Why should the mayor have to stop his work just to meet with some old biddies, they tweet. Who cares if the mayor is arrogant as long as he gets the job done? Myopic little twits.
While online commenters pushed back hard against Milloy, DC Councilmember Tommy Wells tweeted, "Courtland Milloy's column should be read and re-read."

I've read Milloy's column several times, and have come to agree with Wells' plea that Milloy not be dismissed. Milloy's raw characterization of those most inclined to support Fenty's urbanist policies raises unavoidable questions for those of us who identify as urbanists, particularly those who belong to the "hipster" demographic.

Of all the posts I've written for GGW, the two that triggered the most comments (mostly negative) advocated for unfolded strollers on Circulator buses and for Georgetown University to develop more on-campus housing to preserve the multi-generational character of the community.

Now, I may have been wrong in my positions, but it's noteworthy that the two positions of mine that GGW commenters most resisted advocated for the interests of those other than childless young singles and couples.

How can we broaden the tent of urbanism? By broadening our view of urbanism itself.

Hipster Urbanism

For many, urbanism can be reduced to support for density irrespective of the consequences for communities. And they see these density increases as being enabled by free housing markets, denser residential and commercial developments, and more transportation options.

When NPR ran a story about gentrification in Anacostia, 5 GGW contributors, all of whom I respect immensely, wrote 2 articles dismissing the story. One contributor questioned whether what looks like gentrification isn't really "just a family making a decision to sell and another family making a decision to buy".

Another lauded the newcomers into Anacostia: "good for them for believing in a neighborhood in spite of its challenges, and for meeting its hurdles head on and its new amenities with a sense of excitement."

While these fellow GGW contributors make the important point that the newcomers are middle and upper-class black just as often as they are white, recasting the issue as one of class just brings into sharper focus whose interests we appear to be advocating for.

Urbanists' lack of concern for the effects of large-scale migration in cities, whether it is young middle-class professionals moving into Anacostia or students moving into Georgetown group homes, undermines the credibility of their ideas.

This lack of concern makes urbanism look to many like a front for the interests of the most footloose and unrooted in society - professional, childless singles and couples.

While this segment of society has always existed, over the past couple decades it has become a major demographic phenomenon. Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys describes the effects of millions of twenty- and thirty-somethings' decisions to delay marriage and children.

ACS data reported by Pew Research Center

The delay of marriage and childbearing is particularly profound in the District of Columbia. No state has as high a median age of first marriage as the District, and no state has seen a larger increase in the median age of first birth (5.5 years) from 1970-2006.

Is urbanism's recent success nothing more than the historic growth of this transient demographic? To Milloy and many others, it certainly appears that way.

Big Tent Urbanism

Urbanism can and should command a broader constituency, including families, the elderly and the poor and working-class. But this requires urbanism to aim for more than in-migration and density for their own sake, regardless of the consequences.

It's critical to note that the leading urbanist thinkers associate urbanism with particular benefits of density, secured through smart planning and development, not with density itself. Prominent amongst the benefits that flow from density plus proper planning and development are the freedom to participate in diverse communities of cultural depth and richness.

Kunstler, Duany and Jacobs bemoan the damage done to cultural institutions sustained by cities as a result of suburban sprawl. Yet urbanists in DC don't bemoan the loss of communities and cultural memory when neighborhoods turnover their residents - it's just the free market at work.

These same authors praise the generational and socioeconomic diversity that is possible in cities. Jacobs writes that "cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

Urbanism at its core argues that cities aren't just denser suburbs. They are an organism that fundamentally functions differently and is able to expand the range of options and real freedoms available to people.

But when urbanist policies for enabling such cities are limited to the built environment, they commit the sin of architectural determinism which limits those options and reduces freedom. This myopic view of development has steamrolled communities, and thus undermined urbanism, ever since Baron Haussmann's 19th century renovation of Paris displaced poor and working-class Parisians to the outskirts of the city.

Development that focuses on people, not places, employs all tools of development in order to expand the real options available to people. Revitalizing the built environment for greater density is very important as a means to expanding the freedoms available to people, but it is not the end itself.

If other tools of development aren't employed, then the diversity of culturally deep communities available to urban residents is quickly lost and the range of people who can benefit from revitalized spaces is reduced to a lucky few.

This broader, people-centered view of development was articulated by Amartya Sen in his Development as Freedom, which has become a landmark in development theory. Sen argues:

If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means, or some specially chosen list of instruments.
Any self-identified urbanist in the District who has nothing to say to its 30% of children in poverty, or the 30% of out-of-work Ward 8 residents, cannot rightly claim the mantle of urbanism and deserves any backlash he or she receives.

Smart-growth policies must benefit all residents, or else be they will be rightfully viewed as the tyranny of one class of people over another. We should stop supporting change that does not benefit all residents, as the heart of urbanism is the expansion of the real freedoms made possible by cities.

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