Does This Subdivision Make Me Look Fat?

Your significant other probably has never asked you this question but it may be one of the the most appropriate questions one to ask when pondering poundage.  Way back in the mid-70s, the U.S. obesity rate was about 10%.  By 2007, that rate had increased to 33% with another 33% of the U.S. being clearly overweight.  In 1991, zero states had an adult obesity rate greater than 20%.  Over the next 16 years, America stuffed its collective pie hole to the point where Colorado was the sole state under 20% in 2007. As a nation, we have gained 5.5 billion pounds since the 1970’s.  That’s 27.5 of our largest aircraft carriers.  Now, consider the tag-along maladies associated with obesity such as diabetes, heart disease, increased risk of certain cancers and osteoarthritis and we really start to see the immensity of this problem.
 

So, is it the increased number of Big Gulps that is causing this or is it the increased amount of couch surfing?  That’s a tough question to answer but studies indicate that sloth may have more of an impact on obesity rates than gluttony.  A study performed in Britain looked at obesity rates between 1950 and 1990 and saw that even as gluttony peaked and declined over the years, obesity continued to climb and the data suggested a notable causal role of inactivity.  A study looking at Atlanta found that an increase in daily driving of just 5 minutes increased the likelihood of obesity by 3 percent.  Add another 30 minutes to your commute each way and you’re scale will start to cringe.

Our car dependent lifestyle is literally driving our increased inactivity.  I would wager that most of us drive by necessity not by choice.  Fortunately, that is something we can start to change.  The sprawl fighting organization Congress for the New Urbanism has made healthy places one of its focal points.  In 2010 they partnered with the CDC make health a focal point of their annual convention, which was appropriately held in Atlanta that year.  The CDC has a Healthy Places program that lays out the guidelines for building places that help improve help rather than hinder it.  

If you live in a subdivision where it is a challenge to incorporate walking or cycling into your daily chores, your ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle for you and your family is going to be diminished when compared to a highly walkable neighborhood.  The health benefits that come from being able to open the front door to a walk friendly environment where you can walk to the store, office and park are significant.

It turns out that walkable places that new urbanists and smart growth advocates strive to create are one of the best solutions to many of the health issues that our country faces.  We are getting better with places like Historic Roswell, Avalon, Alpharetta City Center and Milton Crabapple providing (or soon to be providing) moderately walkable lifestyles.  But there is still a lot of work to be done.  Let’s keep pushing for walkable town centers with a diversity of uses, connective paths between neighborhoods as well as parks that are our kids can safely walk to and steer clear of the sloth inducing, car oriented development of the past. 

 

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Behold.. The Crooked Creek Superblock

This is a little outside the normal NUR area of interest but I thought it was an incredible case study into the lack of foresight that many of our cities and subdivisions have around connectivity and the importance of the effective network. The case relates to the Crooked Creek subdivision in Milton that is located along highway 9 between Bethany Bend and Francis Rd on the west side of the highway.  

The golf subdivision is looking to install gates to curb 'cut-through' traffic.  (Full disclosure, I live in a gated subdivision and would prefer that the gates be removed lest ye think me a hypocrite)  There are a couple hurdles Crooked Creek must clear before it can be done and I'm completely uninformed as to the prospects but I'd wager that it passes both.  The first is the 67% HOA vote.  The second is approval from the city.  The criteria for city approval is basically whether it is in the best keepoing of the community and the city and that it does not impact the surrounding community.

The city will no longer have to maintain ~7 miles of road which is a huge plus.  But, at the same time, its grid is being clipped and there will be one fewer connection in an area that is already, and will be moreso in the future, starved for connectivity.  I'm not sure what is worth more and Milton will ultimately need to decide on that but I generally side on more connectivity and you could definitley argue that gating this subdivision will negatively impact the surrounding community.

There are ways to make roads safe, even for children, without gating them.  The main road, Creek Club Dr, is WIDE and thus encourages and accommodates higher speeds.  The lanes are 12 feet in each direction.  That's as wide as an interstate lane.  No wonder Crooked Creek has a speeding problem on their 'cut-through' road.  

Pinching in the road and adding traffic calming would significantly reduce speeds while still enabling connectivity.  I use Vickery Village frequently to illustrate a place that has high connectivity with safe driving speeds.  Anyone can drive in Vickery and kids are ALL OVER the place.  The car just isn't given free reign to drive at unsafe speeds.  Ultimately, if you narrow the roads and you increase safety.  

Gating this subdivision will hinder connectivty and will significantly reduce pedestrian and bike options for those living around Crooked Creek.  They are already almost non-existant but that doesn't mean no effort should be made to keep what little connectivity exists.

My point on this is illustrated below.  Clipping the grid, so to speak, takes what were two superblocks of 670+ acres each and creates a single superblock of 1347 acres.  The perimeter of the new 'block' is 6.3 miles.  That's 10% of the ENTIRE I-285 PERIMETER which is just a little over 63 miles.  So, you're effectively creating a mini-perimeter in Milton and those living ITP will be the only ones benefitting.  (well they will have to pay for their roads with no subsidy from the rest of the city's tax rolls)

Superblock 1


Superblock 2

Superblock 3



For additional insight, check out the NorthFulton.com article on the subject here

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Thoughts on Our New School

It looks like this is the model for our new elementary school... right next to our Historic District. I'm not sure this is much better than the strip mall it's going to replace.  Here are some of my musings on our new elementary school...

View from Ison Dr. Imagine this view from Alpharetta St.
I'm not sure the side of the new school is much of an improvement.

School Architecture - A school should be more than a box where we house our kids during the day... it should inspire learning.  It should not look like a dorm or an office building or an apartment building.  When you see it, you should be able to tell that it is a school.  That's not something that we see much of these days. Milton High comes to mind as good architecture for a school.

The school we are getting will be a cookie cutter version that Fulton County is using quite frequently these days.  It will be the same as Ison Springs Elementary and Lake Forest Elementary in Sandy Springs.  The architect architect was Collins Cooper Carusi and the builder was Evergreen Construction.  You can see some wedding day photos of their work here.  I call them wedding day photos because the school is never going to look any better.  They actually have some very nice work in their portfolio.  Unfortunately, our school probably won't be one of their best.

All that said, the interior design of the school will likely be very good.  Learning by Design rated that design as an outstanding project for 2011.  

At a minimum, the school design needs some work on the exterior to give it a distinct Roswell feel.

School Walkability - Roughly 50% of kids walked to school in 1969.  As of 2009, that number had dropped to roughly 15%.  Of course, in the same period, the number of kids who are driven to school in private vehicles has jumped from 12% to 44%.  Just one more thing contributing to the obesity epidemic in our country.  Will this school help reverse that trend?  I highly doubt it.  In this day and age, schools are designed to accommodate bus traffic, car traffic and then foot traffic.  

School Site & Size - This is truly what determines the walkability of a school.  Ideally, an elementary school is embedded into the neighborhood that it serves.  Unfortunately, we haven't done a particularly good job in this country planning for future school sites.  Compounding the issue are school site requirements.  In Georgia, site size requirements are as follows:
  • Elementary Schools - 5 acres + 1 acre for every 100 full-time enrolled students
  • Middle Schools - 12 acres + 1 acre for every 100 full-time enrolled students
  • High Schools - 20 acres + 1 acre for every 100 full-time enrolled students
Given that a quarter mile walk is generally the radius in which someone will choose to walk versus jumping in the car, we are significantly limiting the number of students who would likely choose to walk and finding sites that meet these requirements in already built out cities is increasingly challenging (and expensive).  

With these size requirements, you might figure that size is a requirement to delivering a top notch education.  However, that's not necessarily the case.  Take Inman Middle School in the Virginia Highland neighborhood as an example.  It's a solid school with a 9 out of 10 rating on GreatSchools.org but it's situated on only 2.5 acres.  With almost 800 students, that's about 17.5 fewer acres than the state of Georgia would require if a new school were to be built.  

Our new school will be on roughly 14 acres along hwy 9.  The districting has not been determined yet so we can't say where the students would be walking from.  But, we can safely say that kids residing on the west side of hwy 9 will probably not be walking to school.  Those that have to walk along hwy 9 will also probably not be walking to school.  Any students living more than a half-mile walk from the front door of the school will also probably not be walking.  So, this rules out a sizable chunk of the potential students.  No wonder new schools create traffic concerns.  All the students have to ride or be driven and it's almost exclusively due to the site location and site size requirements.

If we want our new school to be a walkable, neighborhood school, we have a lot of work to do.

I'll also be writing a piece on the school in my Community Design Matters column for the Sept edition of The Current.

Why I Hate Density

This is an enhanced cross-post from my montly column, Community Design Matters, in The Current.  There may be some editorial differences.

How many houses per acre are in your subdivision?  How many are allowed?  How does that make you feel?  Should you feel anything at all?  I say no and here’s why. 

The numbers tell you the density of a given place.  The numbers associated with density tell you absolutely nothing about that place other than how many people or separate dwellings are located there.  It is a hollow word that says nothing about the charm and lovability of a place.

It can tell you nothing about the value of the homes, quality of the schools, demographics of the residents, congestion of the roads or vibrancy of the neighborhood.  The number requires context.  The entry for Density in Dhiru Thadani’s encyclopedic Language of Cities and Towns begins with the following paragraph:

Density is the number of individuals or dwelling units per unit of area.  The making of vibrant, diverse, and exciting urbanism is directly related to the concentration of population and activity. Density ensures the greatest range of people, buildings, public spaces, facilities, services, and choices.  It promotes the easy exchange of ideas and goods and services..

If density ensures the greatest range of people, buildings, public spaces, facilities, services, and choices, why do people generally flip out when anything more than 2 units per acre is proposed in their neighborhood?  The word has a stigma and it does so by failing to capture context.  The NIMBY response to density has its roots in many misconceptions about density’s relationship to social ills that have been associated with it such as crime, traffic, poor schools, low property values. etc.  The thing is, correlation and causation can often be miles apart.  Other misguided reasons people give such as they don’t want to be packed in like sardines and they aren’t going to give up the American Dream.  Once again, density does a poor job describing an environment.  Take Vickery Village or Seaside as examples.  These are places where single family homes dominate the landscape but the design increases the density and comfort of the place incredibly well.

The real reason for the NIMBY reaction, in my opinion, is that builders have done it so wrong for so long that virtually every building associated with density in a suburban setting is absolutely god awful, reprehensible, cookie cutter design that should be punished by revocation of architectural licenses.  You don’t see the ills in places where density has been done right.

Virtually all of the world’s top tourist destinations are highly dense areas where people live, work, learn and play in very close proximity.  With the exception of landscapes, people don’t take pictures and send postcards of places that don’t have some minimum amount of density.  You don’t get excited when you receive a postcard of Martin’s Landing, even the well photoshopped ones.  People like to see and visit highly beautiful, dense urban areas.  Think of Paris, Rome, Santorini, Prague, Seaside, Savannah or Charleston.  

So, people like density but they don’t like to admit it to themselves.  This is partially because in many cases, developers have put the cart before the horse.  Density does not create a successful place (unless you have hundreds of millions of dollars).  Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns recently stated,

..density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one.

Maybe this is why Historic Roswell has the most examples of density done right in the northern suburbs.  The Bricks, Founders Mill and Canton St Walk/Providence are all excellent and complement the success of the neighborhood.   Unfortunately, there aren’t more.  Take away these three, and you have literally hundreds of poorly planned, improperly located and shoddily constructed condos, townhouse and apartments sprinkled all over the city.  We must do better and cities MUST stop allowing condos, townhouse and apartments to be built where they don’t belong.  They belong in the centers of our villages and towns and not anywhere someone can make a buck.

More importantly however, people need to understand that density isn’t the issue.  Design and location the things that should concern you. 

Community Design Matters Especially if you want "Density Done Right."

This video is a fun exercise to see if you can guess the density.  You will quickly learn that the number isn't the issue.  

The Elusive Walkable Neighborhood

This is a cross-post from my montly column, Community Design Matters, inThe Roswell Current.  

 

Recently, I wrote about the Elusive Neighborhood Grocery Store. A number of readers wrote me with disappointment that we have so few here in the northern ‘burbs.' I’m disappointed too. But, there is something even more elusive in our part of metro-suburbia that is even harder to find—The Elusive Walkable Neighborhood.

The first thing I want to point out is this: There are Neighborhoods that are Subdivisions but not all Subdivisions are Neighborhoods. Atlanta’s northern suburbs are largely made up of subdivisions that people call neighborhoods because our country has lost so many true neighborhoods that people don’t even know how to recognize them anymore. A place with houses has become a neighborhood. The second thing I want to point out is that a walkable neighborhood almost always has sidewalks but a subdivision with sidewalks is rarely a walkable neighborhood. 

Okay, you say… you just dissed my subdivided lifestyle, so tell me, Mr. New Urban Smarty-pants, what is a walkable neighborhood? First and foremost, a walkable neighborhood is a place where people generally prefer to walk because it feels comfortable and interesting. Use the following question as a litmus test. When driving, do you feel the urge to get out of your car and walk? If the answer is no, you are probably not in a walkable neighborhood. If the answer is yes, you have probably found one. 

There are other ways to test walkability. The most popular is Walkscore, which is a place whose value of 0 to 100 is based on the amenities in close proximity of a given address. Check yours at walkscore.com. You can also use the immeasurable rules of Walk Appeal coined by architect Steve Mouzon — people on the street, lovable things along the way, magic of the city, safety, nature, and sound. These are all things that impact whether you will walk somewhere but probably don’t enter your thought process when deciding between your shoes or your keys.

Another easy rule of thumb is that people are generally not willing to walk more than a quarter mile to get to their destination if a car is readily available. Exceptions to this occur in places with high Walk Appeal, where the walk is broken up by many interesting ‘distractions.’ These distractions are generally people, shops, or interesting views (natural or manmade). Places like Paris, New York City, Savannah and Charleston are great examples of places where people are more than willing to walk long distances. Places like Windward Parkway that have sidewalks do enable walking but don’t have high Walk Appeal. It gets a Walkscore of 12.  

Walkability is a key component of a true neighborhood. Neighbors don’t meet each other driving from their garage to the big box store du jour and back to their garage. They meet each other on foot. Much of this happens while walking. Walkable neighborhoods promote neighborliness. Neighborhoods with a mix of interesting destinations within close proximity that are accessible by foot promote walking. Walking promotes better health, better social capital, and less foreign oil consumption. And walking under the influence rarely results in serious injury. 

Now that TSPLOST has failed, maybe we should move in the opposite direction and focus less on roads and transit and more on sidewalks and proximity.

It Takes Time to Turn the Titanic...

I saw an interesting tweet a few days ago from Alpharetta city councilman Jimmy Gilvin that referenced some 2010 US census stats. He was basically pointing out that during that timeframe people flocked to suburban environments while urban places didn't fare as well. Here’s his tweet:

"From 2000 to 2010 the City of Atlanta added 3500 residents. Suburban Alpharetta added 22,600. Please spare me the urbanism talk."

First off, if you would like to follow Jimmy on Twitter his handle is @jimgilvin. He is often entertaining and I appreciate an elected official being active in social media. It is definitely a risk.

That being said, I had to take a look at his stats (which are correct) out of curiosity since my blog is primarily about New Urbanism.  The data from 2000 to 2010 pretty much shows that it was business as usual for the suburban experiment. This isn’t really much of a surprise. I wondered if anything had changed since those nubmers came out last year because everything that I’ve read recently points to a renewed interest in walkable urban environments as a preference over the drivable suburban environments that have dominated population growth over the last 40-50 years. 

Interest in walkable urban environments started to pick up around 2004-2005 and a lot of condos started to go up in the denser areas of the region, most notably in Midtown and Buckhead. But, there was also a lot of development that broke ground around our traditionally suburban city centers that could also be deemed walkable even if it wasn't as intense as what was going on in the urban cores. A lot of this development was crushed by the economic downturn and still hasn’t fully recovered.  All types of development suffered this fate whether it was walkable urban, drivable suburban, single-family, multi-family, single-use or mixed-use.  There was no single boggieman here.

We are starting to see some signs of recovery in all of the aforementioned areas.  My expectation is that over the next two to three years, we will start to see more walkable development pick up steam again as you see condos, townhomes and apartments start to go up around the region.  Most of this will occur in the centers of our suburban towns. I think this is ringing true in the more current stats. The latest population estimates as of July 2011 show a much different story.

In the period from April 2010 through July 2011, the City of Atlanta's population growth, 3%, exceeded much of the region as new buyers and renters started filling in much of the empty development that was left unoccupied after the real estate crash.  The Atlanta condo market is healthier than it has been in years. Many of the high profile condo buildings that were noticeably empty for years have hit the tipping point where 70% of their units have been sold.  This threshold makes financing much easier and will accellerate the sale of the remaining units.  Additionally, a significant amount of apartment capacity is going up intown.  What I'm saying here is that the trend is looking favorable for walkable urbanism.  Most drivable suburban areas are growing but at a slower clip.

In fact, the ONLY suburban market that exceeded the city of Atlanta's growth on a percentage basis between April 2010 and July 2011 was North Fulton.  The US Census estimates show that the city of Atlanta added 12,424 residents during that 15 month period.  This was the most of any city in the metro area.  There were only 7 cities with over 20k residents that exceeded that growth.  Five of them were in North Fulton (Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Roswell, Sandy Springs).  The other two were East Point and Union City.

If these trends continue, traditional suburbia may be in for a tough road ahead.  Here are some key points:

  1. North Fulton, specifically Alpharetta, is not your typical suburban environment. It is a Technology hub that functions as a job center. It has much more wealth than most of the other suburban areas on the region. Most suburbs do not have the same inherent benefits that North Fulton does.
  2. All of the cities in North Fulton have either approved, planned or built walkable urban environments
    1. Alpharetta – City Center, Avalon
    2. Roswell – Groveway, Historic Roswell Master Plan, Centennial Walk
    3. Johns Creek – Johns Creek Walk
    4. Milton – Crabapple Area
    5. Sandy Springs – New Town Center
  3. Boomer and Millennial demographics are pointing toward a very large demand for walkable urbanism over the next 10 to 15 years as boomers downsize and millennials buy homes.
  4. Much of this growth in walkable urbanism will be in areas that have been traditionally labled the suburbs.  Just look at where the most talked about areas are in your suburban city.  They aren't the newest golf, tennis or gated subdivision.  They are the city centers with lively environments of shops and restaurants.

The suburban experiment is almost over and it is even coming to an end here in North Fulton.  People want places where they don't have to rely 100% on their cars to live their lives.

 

 

Weekly Top 5 - Cars, Conservatives, Alpharetta, Congestion, Innovation

Each week, New Urban Roswell brings you our Top 5 most interesting and thought provoking articles about urbanism and neighborhoods.  We sifted through about 100 articles this week to find the top 5.  We hope you enjoy.

Beware the 18% - New Urbanism Blog

Embedded in this article is a very interesting statistic that goes beyond the headline.  That statistic is that the average annual cost for owning a mid-size car in the US  is $9,519 when you factor in all pertinent costs and assume annual mileage of 15,000.  That’s almost 65 cents a mile!  It’s a statistic that’s just crying out for some common sense. Much of the current debate in Atlanta is about the Transportation Investment Act and the fact that 48% of the money is allocated to roads... this statistic tells me that we might want to consider lowering that.  Assuming that you have a 10 mile commute, your round trip is costing you about $13!!!  WOW!  Bet you didn’t think about that.  We need to start building walkable places where people aren’t forced to use their car and can even consider reducing their car ownership.  The automobile is a drag on our national wealth. 

Smart Growth for Conservatives - Bacon’s Rebellion

This is a highly interesting read if you are at all concerned about he politicization of common sense.  In the preface to this post, Bacon comments that “efficiency is efficiency... cost effectiveness is cost effectiveness.”  The current dichotomy is Sprawl (Conservative) vs Smart Growth (Liberal) and that isn’t going to cut it as reality begins to smack us in the face more and more frequently.  The argument in this post is whether the top-down liberal solution or the bottom-up conservative solution is best.  As a staunch independent, I think a little of both is needed.  An additional excerpt from the preface:

The logical, if somewhat extreme, outcome of the conservative dismissal of Smart Growth is the anti-Agenda 21 movement, which connects non-existing dots between the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainability agenda, President Obama’s green policies and efforts in Virginia’s cities and counties to implement Smart Growth. Thus, in this conspiratorial mindset, anything resembling Smart Growth is seen as part of a larger movement to undermine American freedoms and liberties. Frighteningly, this movement has gained momentum in a number of Virginia counties and created a distraction from the real issues.

If you really have some time and are interested, you can listen to a panel that Mr. Bacon was on at CNU 20 here.

Three Simple Ideas for Cities - Strong Towns Blog

This is a great posts that throws some ideas and thoughts out on how some small, experimental ideas could improve the overall development picture of towns and cities.  The three ideas that are thrown out for consideration are building a local building bank, moving to land value taxation rather than building value taxation and encouraging/allowing code free zones where a city can experiment with what an area with no zoning would develop like.  I feel that experimentation of this nature is not only a good idea but necessary to move into the next generation of development in this country.  The systems we have now are dysfunctional at best and toxic at worst.  

Alpharetta City Center Plan Stirs Concerns About Green Space - Live in Alpharetta

All I can really say on the newly revised plans for Alpharetta’s city center are WOW!  The plan as it is would create an incredible mixed-use destination that is quaint, people focused and inherently local.  This plan is about a mile away from Avalon but it is extremely different in the way it will interact with people.  I think once both are done, there will be no question that this project will win the ‘lovability’ contest. Great work Alpharetta!  I’m more than a little bit jealous that Roswell’s neighbor city seems to be a step ahead of us in redeveloping it’s urban core.

Rethinking the Economics of Traffic Congestion - The Atlantic Cities

Is traffic congestion really a drag on economies and productivity?  This article looks at areas with low congestion and compares them to areas of high congestion and asserts that congestion is a byproduct of a healthy economy.  You can’t get around it.  They found that when traffic delays went up, GDP also increased and that the correlation was statistically significant. Here’s an excerpt that helps make sense of it:

How could being stuck in traffic lead people to be more productive? The relationship is almost certainly not causal. Instead, regional GDP and traffic congestion are tied to a common moderating variable - the presence of a vibrant, economically-productive city. And as city economies grow, so too does the demand for travel. People travel for work and meetings, for shopping and recreation. They produce and demand goods and services, which further increases travel demand. And when the streets become congested and driving inconvenient, people move to more accessible areas, rebuild at higher densities, travel shorter distances, and shift travel modes.

 

It's Time to Celebrate Roswell

Roswell is about to reach a milestone.  Our dining scene is now healthier than ever.  How do we know this?  We are about to have our fifth McDonald's location!  If you haven't had a chance to see one of the other four, this is what the new one will look like.  It will be at 600 Crossville Rd in just the right spot to snag some hungry cars for its drive through.  Happy Meals for Happy Motoring Roswell!

Quote of the Week: Strong Towns on Hidden Costs

When I bought my computer, it came with a printer costing me no more than $20. At the time I thought “Sweet, free printer!” But since using the printer, I’ve had to frequently purchase ink costing $60 a pop. Over the life-cycle of the printer, I’ve realized I’ve spent more in the printer and ink combined than had I purchased a laser printer costing $250. The upfront costs of a more expensive printer are significant, as is the toner, but I would end up paying less than the subsidized printer in the long run. In other words, I was seduced by the free machine that ended up costing me a lot of money.

Here is the connection to Strong Towns. Federal and State subsidized projects are like the $20 printer. Initially communities think “Sweet, free bridge.” But, once you figure the cost of keeping the bridge in working order, it turns out to be a major expense for communities. This is an expense that if a community couldn’t fund the bridge to begin with, likely wouldn’t have the wherewithal to maintain.

Solution: Purchase the bridge (printer) at full cost, without a subsidy. If you can do that, then you can likely afford the cost of maintenance (ink).

This is another great metaphor that the Strong Towns organization has passed along.  It reminds me of the Johns Creek roads dilemma that the AJC recently wrote about here.

Quote of the Week: Donovan on Ghost Towns

The ghost towns of the housing bust are places that lack transportation options, that aren't walkable. The average family spends 52 cents of every dollar they earn on housing and transportation combined, so the biggest opportunity in development is around transportation.  - Shawn Donovan, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

This is a telling quote taken from this recent Business Week article.  Just from an informal survey of my peers, people are looking for places where they can walk, bike or take transit but unfortunately not as many of those exist as the demand would like.  That makes the real estate in these locations a bit more expensive than others.