The Trick-or-Treat Test

Have you wondered if a neighborhood is walkable? Or, perhaps you have wondered what it even means to define a street, neighborhood, or city as walkable. Here is a dead simple test that will point you toward an answer.

Walkability has ascended to become a top-tier buzz word among urban planners in recent years. Yet, in spite of many efforts, there is no clear, consensus on how to measure a place’s walkability. (A google search yields methods proposed by advocacy groups, the private sector, and academics over the past decade.) 

I propose that truly walkable neighborhoods are those that attract kids on Halloween. (This definition will not work in places that do not celebrate Halloween in the American tradition.) Here’s why.

Read more

A House, Divided

Hank Dittmar (who sadly passed away earlier this month) delivered an inspiring presentation for the Savannah Urbanism Series last fall. His visit to Coastal Georgia coincided with a Lean Urbanism exercise organized by the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority that explored ways to generate development in urban neighborhoods where investment has stalled.

Over the past three months, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing – mostly because I have been searching for it myself. After looking at dozens of homes in Ithaca I have witnessed how strong demand for rental housing has transformed the physical fabric of the city.

One thing that stuck with me nearly half a year after Hank’s presentation is a fact he shared about Washington, D.C. during World War II. According to his presentation, the city’s population soared after the war started. The city’s public broadcasting affiliate, WETA, confirms this:

Continue reading

A Tale of Two Buses

Since relocating to Ithaca, I’ve been riding the TCAT bus to work. While my total commute is just under two miles, nearly 300 feet of elevation change make walking less attractive – thus my decision to ride the bus.

Before leaving Savannah, I had also started riding the bus more often. The re-configured dot shuttle to be specific. In September of last year, Chatham Area Transit (CAT) made a major service change on its fare-free downtown routes. For my two mile commute into downtown, this meant public transit was suddenly much more appealing even though I had to walk several blocks to get to the closest stop. (Full disclosure – I worked for CAT while this route change was being considered.)

While these two bus trips might seem similar – they could hardly be more different.

Continue reading

Parting Thoughts

In a few days, I am moving to Ithaca, New York to start a new position with Tompkins County’s Planning and Sustainability Department. Before I begin this journey, I’d like to reflect on my time living in Savannah.

I was tempted to title this post: Get Your (stuff) Together Savannah, but decided against it. Looking at the long list of things in need of attention in the city made me feel a bit hopeless. Instead, I’d like to focus on the efforts to improve this magical little city.

For the past three years I have called Savannah home. As a transplant here I’ve felt welcomed by many locals and other people who chose to live here. I have memories and friends here that I will never forget. Here are some worthwhile efforts to make Savannah a better place:

Continue reading

What makes an apartment building graceful?

What makes an apartment building fit well into a neighborhood? My first reaction was that I know a good apartment when I see it. While this view might work for the US Supreme Court definition of “hard core pornography” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964), it’s not particularly helpful for figuring out what sorts of apartment buildings fit into urban neighborhoods.

I went in search of multifamily buildings in Savannah that seem to fit well within their surroundings.

106 West Gwinnett

This six story apartment building is the tallest structure adjacent to Forsyth Park. Its first floor is occupied by commercial tenants (currently a vintage clothing store and a bicycle shop). The yellow brick tower has long been one of my favorite buildings in the city.

The building hugs the lot line and is surrounded by streets on three sides. These streets allow plenty of light into all of the windows. The top floors peek over the tree canopy to provide unparalleled views of the park and city. The building’s stylish parapet makes it recognizable from a great distance.

Continue reading

’tis the season for temporary markets

I believe temporary markets are an indicator species for a healthy neighborhood economy. Today I visited two: the Forsyth Farmers Market and Craft Scout Holiday Market.

Craft Scout Holiday Market

For the past three years I’ve visited the Craft Scout market to do Christmas shopping. The market attracts about two dozen local craft makers to the ballroom of Savannah’s American Legion. Vendors sell jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, art prints, and other crafty sorts of gifts. The market attracts a healthy crowd.

Forsyth Farmers Market

Savannah’s Forsyth Park hosts a weekly farmers market. While cool weather likely kept many folks home today, the market often draws many shoppers. The market managers do a great job of retaining a variety of vendors. While we could potentially do almost all our grocery shopping at the farmers market, we rarely are organized enough to pull that off.

I find it fascinating that in spite of the year-round farmers market in Savannah, the vendors still rely on portable structures. While this approach allows the market to adapt to seasonal changes, it places a burden on each vendor to supply a table and shelter. It also makes the market look more improvised than established.

Market Stalls outside the Grove Arcade in Asheville

I was impressed by the approach that I witnessed in Asheville, North Carolina. These simple structures near the Grove Arcade provide vendors with a bit of shelter and a surface to display their goods. They fit neatly between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars.  They also show a graceful approach to accommodating a temporary market in an urban area.

Seeing my neighborhood through new eyes

Three weeks ago, my wife gave birth to our first child. He is adorable and healthy. I could go on and on about the “wee bairn” as we’re fond of calling him. But I’d like to focus on another aspect of this experience for the moment.

Fortunately, I was able to take off some time from work to spend with my family during this special time. This meant that I started experiencing my neighborhood from a new point of view

During this time I got to understand the rhythms of weekday life on my street. As Jane Jacobs called it, “the ballet of the good city sidewalk.” For several days I observed the dog walkers, mail carriers, church goers, students, tourists, and other sorts of people traversing our street. I got to understand how disruptive events (like fire trucks racing away from the station or a neighbor power washing his fence) punctuated the relative tranquility.

I also started to see familiar places in my neighborhood from a completely different perspective. I found that my walking behavior changed substantially when I wore the baby on my body. I crossed intersections feeling more vulnerable and exposed. A crosswalk I would have eagerly approached in October seemed suddenly less hospitable.

In an age before the auto, it’s easy to imagine how my street would have fostered children playing. Tall trees provide shade. The houses face the street allowing parents to watch over the little ones. The brick road surface should slow down traffic. However these factors can’t fully overcome the visceral threat that parents feel about allowing children to play anywhere near streets intended to move cars efficiently.

Thankfully there are many people advocating to make public spaces suitable for children. A few years ago I learned about the 8 80 Cities organization which was founded by Guillermo Penalosa. They focus on creating great public spaces that work for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Now more than ever I realize the importance of this mission.

The exponential growth of Savannah

I recently found a map of the municipal annexations of the City of Savannah. The animation below illustrates the growth of the municipality from 1838 to 1979.

(Note: some annexations in the map were combined to simplify the animation.)

This rate of growth starkly contrasts with Savannah’s first century as a city. During that period, city’s footprint grew in increments of wards.

Over the period shown in the animation above, the city’s population grew 12-fold from just over 11,000 (1840 census) to  over 141,000 (1980 census). In hindsight, I wish I had used GIS for this exercise so I could provide an accurate comparison of the change in land area over the same time period.

Reclaim your neighborhood’s power

Your home is connected to a vast electrical power system. It’s often impossible to know precisely where your power comes from at any given time. While this system has worked well for decades, there is growing evidence that a clean energy revolution is coming soon.

I believe  communities across North America have a unique opportunity to reclaim control of the generation and distribution of their power sources at the scale of the city block.  There are two ways to accomplish this transition to block-scale power grids:

  1. Retrofit – reconfigure existing urban areas to take advantage of new technologies.
  2. Greenfield – build new neighborhoods hardwired for clean block-scale power.

Continue reading