Category Archives: The Built Environment

NYC, after 12 years of Bloomberg

This post originally appeared on the Gehl Architects Cities for People blog

When Janette Sadik Khan and Amanda Burden visited CPH back in 2007, they were impressed with the overall vibe of the city as well as some of the practical design details. They were inspired by the diversity of public life, the quantity of cyclists, and quality of streets and spaces as well as by smart designs, like allowing parallel parked cars along streets to form a protective barrier for cyclists (aka Copenhagen Style bike tracks).  At that time, we emphasized again and again that as wonderful as Copenhagen seemed on that visit, it took 40 years of hard work by countless city leaders, advocacy groups, and citizens to get it to that state. They replied that it was fine that Copenhagen had 40 years to get it right but that they only had 600 days until the end of the 2nd Bloomberg term!

A park in Park Avenue: Renewing the green tradition

Park Avenue: Renewing the green tradition

As the Bloomberg Administration winds down (The mayoral elections on November 5th will select Bloomberg’s successor to take over on Jan. 1 2014), one of the final acts of the administration is to rezone East Midtown to incentivize new investment and development. Although the area includes Grand Central Terminal, Park Avenue and numerous cultural icons, they are difficult to enjoy, as sidewalks are narrow and congested, public spaces are uninviting and public life is mono-functional comprised mostly of business lunches. The district seems to be better suited to the lifestyle of the Mad Men era, than of the dynamic urban culture of 2013. Together with Jonathan Rose Companies and Skanska, we created a vision for the district’s public realm, addressing issues from the large to the small scale. Our plan to re-engage with cultural and architectural icons, to re-imagine the streets and public spaces and to get the details right block by block was unveiled by Deputy Mayor Steel at the MAS Summit last week. The project is a result of an inclusive process engaging hundreds of citizens and stakeholders through a series of public workshops and in collaboration with numerous city agencies and City Hall. The initial response has been overwhelmingly positive, see more at: or

Grand Central Balcony

Vanderbilt Balcony

By coincidence we also launched the NY premier of the Human Scale, which explores the efforts of people around the world, who have been inspired by Jan Gehl and Gehl Architects to make their cities better for people. The film touches on numerous subjects looming large for the next Mayor of New York such as health, income inequality, social justice as well as climate change and resilience. Regardless of who is elected we urge him to remember the human scale in all plans and policy, from the grand plans for East Midtown, Penn Station, and Hudson Yards to the small, such as parklets, bike lanes and neighborhood plazas. To paraphrase Jan’s closing monologue in the film, it is surprisingly affordable and simple to be good to people that live in cities. We can achieve win-wins of economic growth and sustainable development if we prioritize the needs of people and focus on ensuring access for all to amenities and services so vital to quality of life in Cities. Imagine what NYC could achieve with constant dedication and focus on being ‘sweet to people’ for 40 years!

Read the full plan here, and for more from Gehl Architects, check out the blog Cities for People.

Complete Streets: Changing Design AND Decisions around the Nation

The stories of success keep rolling in. Portland Maine turned summer maintenance projects into Complete Streets improvement opportunities. Detroit’s Woodward Avenue will be redesigned as a major transit corridor, while Lansing has received the state’s first counterflow bicycle lane, courtesy of MIDOT. And Helena, Montana is requiring sidewalks in new subdivisions.

The calmed boulevards, protected bike lanes, and human-scaled intersections are all the more welcome, because they have been so long in coming for transportation reform advocates who have been talking about a different way to build our streets for more than two decades.

New design manuals, such as NACTO’s new Urban Street Design Guidelines seem to be showing the way, finally laying out new parameters for building multi-modal streets. The guides help give engineers the guidance they need to narrow lanes, create frequent pedestrian crossings, and integrate the needs of everyone from bus drivers to bicyclists. But a focus on manuals alone misses the profound nature of the change underway.

This is because the transformation is about much more than new project designs. The communities that are successfully–and consistently–building complete streets are upending a long tradition in which projects have driven policy. In the past, the need to deliver projects (i.e., roads) has driven the creation of systems to deliver them, and policies were developed simply in support of that mission. But in places with a complete streets approach, policies are now in the driver’s seat, directing streets that improve safety while enhancing community health and economic development. The clear commitment to create roads that are safe for all users has inspired a re-evaluation not only of design parameters, but of all the procedures, decisions, and priorities that guide investments and the day to day work of a transportation agency.

Turning transportation planning upside down in this way will only happen if three conditions are met: the community must envision a new transportation future; it must build public and community support; and it must create a clear path to change. Nashville, Tennessee shows how one community discovered these three keys to turning a road-building system into an engine for better communities.

First, people in Nashville understood the need to reframe the issue. Public transportation, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities could no longer be viewed as separate ‘amenities’ to be added only after roads are built; they must be seen as integral to a holistic transportation system. The new framework was expressed by Mayor Karl Dean when he signed a new Complete Streets Executive Order with an emphasis on creating healthier and more sustainable communities. The city had already sponsored multiple meetings, forums, workshops and documents to clearly communicate this new approach.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean signs the city's complete streets policy while staff, including Adetokunbo "Toks" Omishakin, directoro of healthy living initiatives, look on. (Photo by Gary Layda, City of Nashville.)

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean signs the city’s complete streets policy while staff, including Adetokunbo “Toks” Omishakin, directoro of healthy living initiatives, look on. (Photo by Gary Layda, City of Nashville.)

The second key is to build political and community support for this new vision. The city promoted the former bicycle pedestrian coordinator, Toks Omishakin, to the new position of Director of Healthy Living Initiatives; his work to build both external and internal support for the new frame is documented in my book. The Nashville regional planning agency laid the groundwork for its own policy shift with a survey that found that while 90 percent of respondents get to work by driving alone, most people felt that the most important transportation problems to solve were the a lack of options for transit, bicycling, and walking, along with poorly planned development.

Nashville, TN has made many small improvements, including this bike lane and improved bus stop. (Photo by Gary Layda, City of Nashville)

Nashville, TN has made many small improvements, including this bike lane and improved bus stop. (Photo by Gary Layda, City of Nashville)

The third key is to create a clear path from current practice to the new approach. Nashville’s new Major and Collector and Street Plan provided such clarity for street planning in the city, with its two interlocking typology systems, one that focuses on how the street functions for travelers, and the other on how it interacts with surrounding land use. But this clarity was also achieved through a new Public Works project checklist used to identify every opportunity to make multi-modal improvements in the course of everyday repair and rehab. At the regional level, clarity came through a new project-selection process that now gives multimodal projects an edge.

Only after all three of these keys were turned did the exciting outcomes start to emerge. The city grew its bicycle network from seven miles to over one hundred miles, and documented that the number of people bicycling shot up 50 percent between 2009 and 2011. Spending is showing a clear shift; in the new regional transportation funding plan, 70 percent of the projects include active transportation infrastructure–compared with just 2 percent of the projects in the plan adopted five years earlier.

This change model is being replicated all across the country, not least in Nashville’s neighbor Memphis, which was honored recently for adopting the nation’s 500th complete streets policy. Memphis, and hundreds of communities like it, are not only starting to build roads that look different–they are making transportation decisions in a fundamentally new way.

You can get a monthly dose of these successes by subscribing to the National Complete Streets Coalition newsletter, at


About Barbara McCann

Barbara McCann served as the founding Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, working with groups from AARP to the YMCA to develop and advance the adoption of policies to make streets safe for all users. More than 500 jurisdictions, including more than half the states, have now adopted Complete Streets policies. McCann co-created the Complete Streets Workshop program and speaks widely. In 2011 the NY/NJ Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers recognized her with the 2011 Transportation Advancement Award, given annually to a non-engineer "for contributions in advancing transportation programs through outstanding leadership." Barbara founded McCann Consulting in 2003 to work with government agencies, non-profits, and researchers, authoring numerous reports and articles on transportation, health, and land use. McCann is also a co-author of Sprawl Costs. Prior to establishing her own firm, McCann served as Director of Information and Research at Smart Growth America (SGA) where she authored the report Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl, the first research report documenting the relationship between sprawl and obesity. She worked at CNN as a writer and producer for 13 years during her first career as a journalist. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband Bob Bloomfield.

Foreword Friday: Designing with Empathy Edition

This Friday, visionary architect Sim Van der Ryn takes you on a reflective journey of a more ecological and humane approach to design. With a focus on the strengths and weaknesses in our approach to the design of our communities, regions, and buildings he looks at promising trends and projects that demonstrate how we can help create a better world for others and ourselves.

Enjoy this beautifully illustrated book drawing on a rich and revered career of a noted leader in the field.



Sustainable Consumption is a Myth

#BlackFriday at Best Buy, 12:01am (cc) Robert Stromberg @

Continual growth and consumption is unsustainable. We’ve published many books on why the idea of “sustainable consumption” is impossible, but this post by Alison Singer at Worldwatch breaks it down simply and effectively.

Across the globe the concept of sustainable consumption is being touted as the way of the future, a change in lifestyle and values that promises “green growth”– economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment. Though not without obstacles and controversy, this concept has been embraced by policymakers, consumers, and industry. The idea is that, by providing consumers with a choice of products reflecting their new environmental values, the market will self-regulate its way towards a more sustainable future, one in which supermarket shelves are lined with ecologically friendly products, and workers in developing countries are receiving fair wages for their labor. Eco-labeling, taxes on water and energy consumption, recycling incentives, education and communication campaigns, and advertising are examples of methods to promote sustainable consumption, all of which are endorsed by the OECD.

More here.

Foreword Friday: Big City Edition

This week, join New York City’s Chief Urban Designer, Alexandros Washburn, as he rides out Hurricane Sandy from his apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In his new lavishly illustrated book, The Nature of Urban Design, Alexandros draws heavily on his experience within the New York City planning system while highlighting forward-thinking developments in cities around the world. He grounds his book in the realities of political and financial challenges that hasten or hinder even the most beautiful designs. By discussing projects like the High Line and the Harlem Children’s Zone as well as examples from Seoul to Singapore, he explores the nuances of the urban design process while emphasizing the importance of individuals with the drive to make a difference in their city.

“Mr. Washburn takes lay people on an illustrated and highly accessible tour of urban planning, from the High Line to the subway system, which, he explains, emits little more in greenhouse gases than the city’s streetlights.” —The New York Times

Contrasting Two Models of How Places Survive

Two September experiences reminded me of the strength and fragility of urban places, and the inherent ironies of surviving town forms. One such experience was here, at home, while preparing for a keynote address in New Hampshire scheduled for later this month. The other was on the road in southern France.

wolfe blog 1

For the New Hampshire address, I have been asked to illustrate universal characteristics of urbanism to local government representatives, and the presentation is coming together well. The basic elements of the classic New England town is a convenient  model for today’s quest for compact, walkable urban areas. To existing residents of such towns, it’s a well-documented, “remember your past” message.

As new urbanist leader Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck summarized in an Atlantic article by Stage Stossell some 14 years ago:

“Many New England towns had rules stating that you couldn’t live more than a mile from the town green, in order to maintain some sense of community and control. Others controlled the way you could graze your animals on the land or how many animals you could own, in order not to deplete resources.”

But more challenging is addressing the second reminder, the one from France — what happens when the underpinnings for a town are taken away?

Read the rest of Charles R. Wolfe’s Contrasting Two Models of How Places Survive at The Huffington Post.


Temple University Students Win Ecological Restoration Scholarship Contest

Congratulations Teresa Pereira and Taylor Keegan on winning the Island Press and Society for Ecological Restoration Why Restore? video contest! Thank you for taking part in our contest and for your contributions to ecological restoration. Keep up the good work! Check out the winning video below and read on to learn more about the winning duo and their project.

Teresa Pereira and Taylor Keegan

Teresa Pereira, Master’s candidate
Temple University, Landscape Architecture and Ecological Restoration

Taylor Keegan, Master’s candidate
Temple University, Landscape Architecture and Ecological Restoration


Why Restore: Lessons Learned by Budding Architects guides us through an interdisciplinary approach to ecological restoration as seen through the eyes of Landscape Architecture graduate students at Temple University. As students of landscape architecture , we look to shape and manipulate the landscape. As growing restoration practitioners we seek to replenish and rework the past and return ecological systems to what they might have become. As scholars, specifically of Landscape Architecture and Ecological Restoration, we are learning to collaborate, understand and ultimately solve the problems within the public spaces of our world. Using the knowledge presented to us by John Munro who heads the ecological restoration department within our program, we explore various plant communities and ecosystems across the North Eastern United States. The culmination of our studies lead to the completion of a restoration project within our local community.

Our workshop specifically took us to Rickett’s Glen State Park in northern Pennsylvania, Pennypack Preserve in southern Pennsylvania, the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, and Cheltenham Township Park in Philadelphia. In these places we recorded reference plots, increasing the department’s collection of restoration resources as well as intimately learned native and non-native plant communities. On our own campus, in Ambler, Pennsylvania, we cleared out a square acre of invasive plants and constructed fascines from the woody material we removed from the site. The final project was to complete a streambank restoration project on Tannery Run Creek on our University’s campus; this stream has experienced an influx of stormwater runoff due to the decrease of open lands and increase of development in the region. Our class broke into smaller groups and installed check dams to restore vitality on the eroded banks of our local stream.

The result of this workshop, as well as our overall program curriculum, is an experiential and creative approach to hybridizing Landscape Architecture and Ecological Restoration. It has also encouraged us to think about the implications of ecological restoration and why it is so crucial for our present and future health and well-being. Through this video we examine the question “Why Restore?” and formulate an answer based on our reflections of the impact ecological restoration has at an individual level to the impact ecological restoration has at a societal level.

More Bugs, More Plants: A Crash Course on Biophilic Cities

Innovative “park connectors” through the urban tree canopy have helped Singapore become “a city in a garden.” Photo courtesy of Biophilic Cities Project.

Cross-posted at TheCityFix

We need nature even more these days. As more people live in cities, nature offers a potent remedy to many of the environmental, economic, and emotional challenges presented by urban living. To address this, a new approach to urbanism has arisen – a “biophilic” urbanism – based on the assumption that contact with nature and the natural world is absolutely essential to modern urban life.

Central to this vision for future cities is the concept of “biophilia” – popularized by Harvard biologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson. He defines biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” He argues that humans carry with us our “ancient brains,” so it is no wonder that we are happier, more relaxed, and more productive in the presence of nature. The evidence is mounting, that we are likely to be more resilient and more creative when we live and work in the presence of nature. Some studies even show we are more likely to exhibit generosity when nature is near. As we examine the presence of plant and animal life in cities, it is becoming increasingly clear that nature is not optional but essential.

What is a Biophilic City?

A biophilic city is a city which successfully integrates nature into the urban landscape, from trees and parks, to vertical gardens and green rooftops. A city can become more biophilic through something as tiny as San Francisco’s parklets, or as major as Wellington, New Zealand’s enormous network of parks and marine life. A biophilic city nurtures and celebrates its biodiversity and wildness, from birds to wildflowers to the invertebrate life that inhabits the city.

San Francisco Parklet (cc) Paul Krueger @

San Francisco Parklet (cc) Paul Krueger @

Cities around the world are discovering creative ways to do this. Singapore, for instance, is working to integrate nature into denser, vertical urban environments, through a mix of regulations, subsidies, and research and development. Green walls and rooftops, an urban trails network – known as “park connectors”- impressively restored urban waterways, and schoolyard gardens are some of the ways Singapore has brought about its vision to be a “city in a garden.”

Why do we need biophilic cities?

Places like Mexico City – that invest in large green walls and rooftops gardens – reap the benefits of improved air quality and food security. Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca forest – the world’s largest urban forest – has been essential is protecting the city’s water supply. In cities like Manila or Mumbai, protecting and restoring mangroves makes sense in terms of adaptation to storm surges and sea level rise. Making a city more biophilic will make it more resilient and sustainable.

Tijuca Massif. Rio de Janiero. Brazil (cc) Rubem Porto Jr. @

Tijuca Massif. Rio de Janiero. Brazil (cc) Rubem Porto Jr. @

These green elements will help us to shade and cool urban environments, to conserve water and energy, and to produce at least some of the food our growing planet is going to need.

Biophilic cities make our urban centers more resilient, and deliver emotional value for urban residents as well. Exposure to nature helps to make both cities and urban residents more resilient in the face of a host of likely pressures and shocks. My notion of a Biophilic city extends beyond the presence of nature to how residents engage with that nature – and how much we know and care about it. Urban biodiversity is necessary but not sufficient when creating a biophilic city. Biophilic cities need citizens who seek to enjoy, visit, and celebrate the nature found in the urban environment.

There are now many creative ideas for nudging urbanites in these directions, from summer camping in urban parks, to free kayaking on city rivers, to school-based initiatives that cultivate a love of nature in children at an early age. The innovative School of Ants – a citizen-science driven study of urban ant species- has produced a terrific urban guide to ants, a kind of flow chart to help children with the complex task of identifying different species. Experiments like these are instrumental in encouraging a love for biodiversity from a young age.

The Biophilic Cities Project

Our Biophilic Cities Project, based in the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, has been underway for the past two years. With funding from the Washington DC-based Summit Foundation, and the Mitchell Foundation, we have been exploring the many creative ways in which cities integrate nature. By developing metrics for understanding urban nature, we can measure and document the many different ways cities provide connections to the natural world.

Much of this work has focused on exploring what a biophilic city is, or could be. We ask – what does it look like and feel like?  By assembling data and GIS layers for Biophilic cities around the globe, we attempt to understand how a city can protect and plan for nature in the urban landscape.

While we are already impressed with the variety of programs, projects, and planning efforts in cities around the world, there remain a number of important open questions:

How much and what kind of nature is needed in cities? What combination of these natural experiences will deliver the greatest health and psychological benefits? “What is the minimum daily requirement of nature?” we sometimes provocatively ask.  And what urban tools, techniques and strategies will be most effective at ensuring this nature exists in our urban future?

The next chapter in our work will involve expanding the community of planners, designers, public officials, and citizens interested in creating biophilic cities, as well as the geographical reach of the project. We will be convening our partner cities and launching this global biophilic cities network this coming October 17-20, at the University of Virginia.


About Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley is Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, where he has taught for the last eighteen years.His primary teaching and research interests are in environmental planning and policy, with special emphasis on coastal and natural hazards planning, environmental values and ethics, and biodiversity conservation. He has published extensively in these areas, including the following recent books: Ethical Land Use; Habitat Conservation Planning: Endangered Species and Urban Growth; Natural Hazard Mitigation; and An Introduction to Coastal Zone Management.In recent years much of his research and writing has been focused on the subject of sustainable communities, and creative strategies by which cities and towns can fundamentally reduce their ecological footprints, while at the same time becoming more livable and equitable places. He is the author of many books, including Biophilic Cities, Resilient Cities, and Green Urbanism.

A Conversation with Vancouver Deputy City Manager, Sadhu Johnston

Making Downtowns Liveable

Harold Henderson of Build a Better Burb interviewed author Ned Crankshaw, author of Creating Vibrant Public Spaces: Streetscape Design in Commercial and Historic Districts. He chairs the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky.

Henderson: If you could give a community  “dos” and three “don’ts” to make it more livable and attractive, what would they be?

Ned Crankshaw: DO center all hubs of activity as close to the center as possible. This includes schools, parks, other community facilities, and, of course, commercial enterprises. Use public buildings to support private enterprise by concentrating more people (customers).

DO develop a pedestrian walkability plan for the community. Use every project – whether it is a street improvement, property development, or a new public facility – to implement the plan and improve the quality of pedestrian spaces in streets.

DON’T design for visitors. Design for your own residents, and visitors will be taken care of in the process.

DON’T tear down buildings unless there is a specific funded plan to replace them with better building(s).

What are the best ways to add parking in a historic downtown? How can it be both hidden and convenient?

Crankshaw: Is there really a need for additional parking? If so, determine the destinations of those who park and locate new parking where it is convenient. “Convenient” places offer a pleasant walking path, a clear view of the destination, and a reasonable-length walk .

Parking shouldn’t be created by demolishing existing buildings, as a general rule. Investigate vacant spaces that may be suitable. Many of the best spaces may be behind buildings or in the interior of blocks and will likely cross multiple property lines.

What makes a place walkable, besides not having to cross four lanes of busy traffic?

Crankshaw: A walkable place provides supportive environments for pedestrians. That is much more than just a safe environment for pedestrians, which is an incredibly minimal threshold. Supportive pedestrian environments provide adequate path widths, buffers from vehicular traffic, visual variety and enjoyment, and shade. They should form a network that takes you places you want to go as directly as possible and with as much choice as possible.

Is it possible to overdo historic preservation?

Crankshaw: Preservation is ideological and mission-oriented. When there are competing values, it’s not always right. But because it is ideological, it always thinks it is right.

In many parts of the United States, the presence (or potential loss) of a town center with thriving businesses is an overriding concern. This is true in smaller cities and towns and in the older suburban communities of large cities. Preservationists need to support that goal even if it means backing off from their traditional fixation on details.

How closely should downtown signs be coordinated?

Crankshaw: Not at all. Towns should place some limits on size, appropriate to their locality, but business and building owners should be free to express themselves without being “coordinated” by someone else’s aesthetic sensibilities. If a town’s economy supports good businesses, those businesses will be smart enough to advertise with the right kinds of signs. People love the vibrant look of nearly cacophonous signs in historic photographs of downtowns and then want to reject freedom of expression in preserved downtowns. It doesn’t make sense.

Are “street trees” an oxymoron? How can they be done right?

Crankshaw: Street trees certainly are not an oxymoron in most residential neighborhoods, whose streets were designed with the idea that there would be trees. In many communities we are neglecting the need to maintain and replant trees in neighborhoods to make our streets more enjoyable.

In downtowns, street trees are a different matter. Trees have demonstrable value in traditional commercial areas. They screen parking areas, provide shade, shape space for pedestrians, and have other psychological and aesthetic values.

Find Henderson’s entire interview here and purchase Crankshaw’s book here.