A Regional Plan: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally and Planning Regionally

From towns to cities to counties, the number of municipalities within the metro area is in the scores.  Everyone in the metro area crosses boundaries and jurisdictions on a regular notice without even thinking about it.  It is rare that a commuter from Cumming to Buckhead would realize that they are crossing at least six jurisdictional lines in their commute.  More likely, they would view the trip as a traffic laden journey through the north side of Atlanta.

The need for a regional plan that coordinates the administrations of these jurisdictions in a meaningful and productive way has never been greater.  Our regional issues include but are not limited to transportation, air quality, public health and water management and we are failing in at least two if not all four of these areas.  The good thing is that with the recent legislation passed to create regions in Georgia that will allow residents of those regions to vote on a penny sales tax, we will be able to control our own transportation destiny.  

The main organizing body behind planning at the regional level is the Atlanta Regional Commission.  The ARC, as it is known, has been serving the metro area for 60 years (under different names) and focuses the area leadership on solutions to regional issues.  They also serve as an informational compendium for data related to the region.  Some of the projects that the ARC works on are:

 

By sponsoring meetings and forums all across the region, the ARC enables citizens to act locally and give input on projects and plans.  It also seeks ideas globally by sponsoring the annual LINK (Leadership Involvement Networking Knowledge) trip that enables regional leaders to tour other successful cities across the nation gathering ideas and knowledge that can be brought back to Atlanta.

All in all, our region is talking the talk.  The ARC is saying many of the right things to help lead Atlanta toward a smarter growth pattern than what we have seen in the past.  As a major thoroughfare in the north metro area, Roswell, only stands to benefit from active participation in ARC planning.  We should encourage our politicians to stay engaged regionally and continue to play a leadership role.

 

Inevitable Growth: Replacing No Growth with Good Growth

image: ARC

Atlanta is expected to grow by almost three million people by 2040 according to the ARC.  This will put the region at just over eight million homo sapiens.  You may often hear that growth is a bad thing and that we need to manage growth or curb growth in order to retain a certain quality of life.  The validity of that argument is debatable but unfortunately for those in the 'no growth' camp, there are other demographic and economic factors that are unlikely to be mitigated at play.  Everyone needs to face it.  We are going to grow.  The question is... "How will we grow?" 

Roswell is off to a good start in many of the planning documents that have been produced in the past decade.  The city understands that quality growth should be a priority and that the local government should play a key role in organizing while not dictating that growth.  The city's Comprehensive Plan2030 predicts in its medium assumption that population will grow from 91,496 in 2010 to 106,771 by 2030.  This will create the need for an additional 3,560 new housing units.  How will we get there?

The only way is smart. willing density.  We need to figure out how to get people to willingly live in higher density.  The plans for four main additional 'villages' of development activity will help significantly and probably should be focused on even more.  These types of developments no only encourage walking and transit but they also create places of character that residents and visitors can relate to and manage the transportation in the area by mitigating congestion.  Below is a map of the proposed villages from the 2006 Master Transportation Plan.

image: Roswell.gov 

The residents should be educated on the merits of smart growth with livable density because density is coming.  Here's a sample that most of us can relate to in the historic district just nort of the Smith Plantation where the Value Village and Southern Skillet are.  This is just a rendering of what a redevelopment of that area could look like.

image: Roswell.gov

If we can turn the blighted areas of Roswell into dense areas that are beautiful and interesting, wouldn't that be an improvement on our current situation?  There are so many reasons that this type of growth should be encouraged.  I can't go off on a diatribe of the economic/environmental/health/social benefits of density as well as many others out there in the blogosphere so I won't even try.  But, I will link to a couple very interesting posts on density by one of my favorite bloggers, Kaid Benfield, with the NRDC.

Hilariously and Scarily Bad Density

Beautiful Density

Hopefully you took a look at these links.  Most of the places in the Beautiful Density link are examples of Smart Growth and/or New Urbanist communities that offer a much higher quality of life for all ages than the typical suburban development.  If Roswell is going to get serious about growth over the next 30 years, we should be curbing development on the fringe and encouraging smart density in the villages that have been identified as growth centers as well as in the historic district.

Regional Principles: How are these defined in metro-Atlanta?

Whether you choose to accept it or not, Roswell is part of a much larger region.  Successful regions should focus on regional plans that put a priority on organizing the population into areas where mixed-use neighborhoods and nodes that follow the logic of a rural to urban transect (we'll discuss the transect later but if you need a primer, click here).  

As you have probably seen, there are areas within metro Atlanta that were able to implement some mixed-use projects prior to the economic fiasco.  However, we are still for the most part a drivable suburban city with small pockets of walkable urbanism.

When you take a look at the region as a whole, you find that Atlanta is fundamentally flawed when creating uniform regional principles and goals.  I believe this is due to too many competing and conflicting municipalities focusing on too many different objectives.  

We live in an amazingly expansive metro-region due to the unrelenting sprawl caused by poor planning, bad developing and a lack of geographic boundaries to keep the first two in check.  Studies suggest that for every one percent increase in population in suburbia, the land use increases by 8-10%.  This has caused Atlanta to grow like a cancer over the past 20 years.  Depending on the day of the week, the metro area is made up of anywhere from 10 - 20 counties.  I typically like to think of the region as 10 counties (10.5 if you count the North Fulton/Milton County separatist movement).

How does the region bring all of these bodies, counties and cities, together?  Over the past few decades, Atlanta's organization tool of choice has been the Atlanta Regional Commission.  All things considered, the ARC is a well intentioned and moderately successful organization.  However, we all know where we are today and it's not where we should be.  So, we have some work to do.  The mission of the ARC according to it's website is:

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) serves as a catalyst for regional progress by focusing leadership, attention and planning resources on key regional issues. 

This is accomplished through professional planning initiatives and the provision of objective information. In addition, it is made possible through the involvement of the community in collaborative partnerships that encourage healthy economic growth compatible with the environment, improve the region's quality of life and provide opportunities for leadership development.

So, what are the Smart Growth Manual principles that we will be looking at?  

 

  • Inevitable Growth - Replacing No Growth with Good Growth
  • A Regional Plan - Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, but Planning Regionally
  • Community Involvement - Seeking Community Consensus for All Plans
  • The Transect - Planning According to the Logic of a Rural-to-Urban Transect
  • The Neighborhood - Planning in Increments of Complete Neighborhoods
  • Growth Priorities - Directing Investment to Smart Growth Priority Areas
  • Affordable Housing - Requiring Every Area to Accommodate Subsidized Dwellings
  • Distribution of LULUs - Allocating Locally Undesirable Land Uses Fairly and Logically
  • Food Security - Ensuring Food Supply by Retaining Farmland
  • Shared Wealth - Allocating Property Tax Revenue Equitably Across the Region
  • Scale of Governance - Coordinating Government and Neighborhood Structure
  • Coordinating Policy - Avoiding Dumb-Growth Locations for Government Facilities
  • Legalizing Smart Growth - Introducing Smart Growth as a Way of Expanding Choice
  • The Limits of Water - Building Only Where Water Resources are Plentiful
  • The Shrinking City - Designing the Controlled Contraction of Certain Cities                                      

 

We'll be examining each of the above principles in a little more depth in subsequent posts.  Some of these principles are pretty controversial and would likely be political hotcakes in our region.  I look forward to your commentary.

Image Credit: Google Maps

 

The Smart Growth Roswell Project - A Roswell Case Study of the Smart Growth Manual

If you have been staying abreast of my posts here at New Urban Roswell, you are aware that I think very highly of the recent book The Smart Growth Manual.  We posted an introduction to our project several months ago and we have answered a few questions that we posed in subsequent posts.  Now, it's time to dive in a little deeper and actually take the book and dissect it page by page and compare Roswell to it's recommendations.  

Over the coming months, we will dive into each of the topics covered in the Smart Growth Manual.  We are looking forward to examining Roswell's Region, Neighborhoods, Streets & Buildings and hope that you will check back regularly for updates.

Are drivers able to effectively move around town without accessing congested arterial roads?

This is more of a rhetorical question here in Roswell.  Our city is unfortunately at the convergence of multiple major state highways; 400, 9, 120 & 92.  This creates some significant transportation problems for the city.  Additionally, we are handcuffed by some unique geographic conditions that prevented a more robust road network in certain areas.  Think hwy 9 at the Chattahoochee as well as the 9/120 intersection at the square.  That being said, we still have a ton of dendritic neighborhoods that lack any type of networked connectivity.  Think about virtually any spot outside of the historic district.  Unfortunately, we didn't make a number of intelligent decisions when they could have been made that would have mitigated much of the gridlock that we experience at major intersections.  Some of the worst of these are complete disasters at rush hour such as 400 and Holcomb Bridge.  

So, what does the current traffic situation in Roswell actually look like.  First let's look at some statistics from the 2006 Transportation Master Plan:

  • 7% of trips are totally within the cities boundaries
  • 52% of trips start or end within the city
  • 41% of trips are through the city with no start or end in Roswell
  • 393 miles of public streets are in Roswell. Of these, only 165 miles, 42%, connect to more than one street to form a network
  • 58% street miles are dead end or cul-de-sac streets

I continually make the argument that had the city created more of a grid type street network when the streets were laid out, some (not all) of these problems would have been mitigated.  This image from the 2006 plan illustrates how traffic collects in a typical suburban network and how it can be disbursed with a network which puts less demand on any one road and keeps the intra-city trip completely off the arterial.

Another great visual from the same report is this one which illustrates the effective street network.  That is the network of streets that people use to actually get somewhere outside of their neighborhood, i.e. work, school, shopping, out of Roswell, etc.

The report sums up the consequences of our limited network nicely and hits on many of the ideals of smart growth and new urbanism; "This low percentage of "effective network" has the effect of focusing large amounts of traffic on a limited amount of roads. This creates growing pressure on key corridors and intersections, slowly deteriorating the quality-of-life of the residents and businesses along them. As already illustrated, more network and connectivity balances and distributes traffic, providing more routing options and flexibility particularly for local trips."

To conclude, at this point in Roswell, there are very few ways to get anywhere without accessing one of the major arterials.  Without some major overhauls, that won't change.  One big project that was actually being unveiled to the public tonight is the Big Creek bridge across 400.  It will provide relief to the Holcomb Bridge/400 intersection by offering an alternative route from East Roswell to West Roswell.  The plan looks solid and hopefully the city council will give it the green light.  We certainly need progress in this area.

Image Credits: 2006 City of Roswell Transportation Master Plan

Do you have more than two entrances/exits to your neighborhood?

An unfortunate by product of our cul-de-sac nation is the proliferation of neighborhoods with only one entrance.  The cul-de-sacs feed the collector roads and the collector roads (Norcross St) feed the arterials (Holcomb Bridge) creating the need for all cars to go to the same road to go anywhere.  The problem is simple, you can't get anywhere easily and neither can anyone else.  The benefit, your kids have a nice, usually safe, place to play until their pre-teen years.  After that, mommy turns into soccer mom and now lives a meaningful life complete with packing the car, shuttling the kids to and from all of their daily activities and then unpacking the car.  Some people like this lifestyle but I think more of them don't realize that there is an alternative.

The alternative is well connected streets in neighborhoods with a mix of uses that include parks, ball fields, schools and businesses that kids can visit.  Let's not forget that they might be able to walk down a sidewalk to their friends' houses a block or two away.  The map below is a good illustration of a networked (not perfectly) street grid and a dendritic street grid here in Roswell.  Now, forget about the demographic for the moment and just consider life for a kid in one of the two areas that are highlighted.

Now, the three neighborhoods in the red box are completely unconnected to each other or the city park right next door.  In order for the kid living in the top left of the box to get out to the adjacent lot on Norcross Street, they would have to go all the way down to Grimes Bridge, hang a left and then hang a left on Norcross Street.  You may be looking at a mile walk, bike or ride to go to the lot in your back yard.  Another example is the western most lot on Meadowland Dr trying to get to Waller Park.  Hang a right on Grimes Bridge, then another right on Oxbo and then down to Dobbs Dr.  You're looking at about two miles to get about 500 feet.  Obviously, kid's aren't going to do this, they are going to climb a fence or trespass on someone's property to take the coveted shortcut.

Now, if you take a look at the streets highlighted within the green block, you can see that there is well connected network with many more options to getting in and out of the neighborhoods.  As the city begins to reinvest and encourage development in these kinds of areas, you will see a very swift recovery and the residents will experience a completely different environment than those in the red box.  

The point of this is that our neighborhoods should have many more entrances, exits and connections than they were built with.  At this point, most of our neighborhoods are kind of stuck.  There are some options for pedestrian activity as Kaid Benfield pointed out in a post back in October.  Neighborhoods faced with this dilemma should strongly consider putting in paved pedestrian and bike paths to connect their cul-de-sacs and dead ends.   New development should have a connectivity mandate and work to reduce congestion rather than create it.  I think we are moving in the right direction here in Roswell with many of the plans that are being put in place.  Only time will tell.

Is there a park or public space (not a road) within a 5 minute walk of your home?

Sloan Street Park has a small playground and a little field that is inviting to the residents and visitors of the Mill Village area.Parks and public space is, in my opinion, one of the areas where our city excels.  Roswell is actually one of the metro Atlanta cities with the largest amount of park space per capita and it is apparent that people use it.  The city of Roswell estimates that there are around 2 million park visits annually to the city park system.  I live within a 5 minute walk of four parks and several trails and I use them almost daily and there are always visitors.  

Unfortunately, not every resident has the luxury of walking to the park.  Lack of walkable park access becomes more and more prevalent the further from the historic district you get.  But, the park space, over 900 acres not including the national park system, is distributed out with some of the larger parks away from the historic district.  

When you compare Roswell to the city of Atlanta, we're doing just fine though.  As of 2008, Atlanta had only 4.5% of its land dedicated to park space.  That was the lowest among the top 25 largest cities.  The Beltline will help increase that significantly though.  Now, Roswell actually trailed Atlanta in this area with only 4% of our land dedicated to parks and greenspace.  This seems bad but we must also take a look at population.  Comparatively speaking, the city of Roswell has 13.5 acres of parks and greenspace per 1,000 residents compared to the city of Atlanta's 7.7 (2007 data).  The national average is 13.6 acres.  Now, 13.5 is good when you compare us to our anchor city to the south however we might want to look to our neighboring county to the east for a few tips.  From 2000 to 2008, Gwinnett county acquired over 9,000 acres of new park land and was named the best large park system in America by the National Parks and Recreation Association. (I still can't bring myself to like Gwinnett though).  They are at 15.5 acres per 1,000 residents.  

If I could wave a magic wand and make one change to the park system here in Roswell, I would immediately take foreclosed or abandoned properties and turn them into pocket parks such as Sloan Street Park.  The goal would be to have a park within a walkable half mile of 90% of the residents of Roswell. Ideally, every child would have a park within a quarter mile walk but with the dendritic road system that we have, that just would not be possible.

So, to answer the original question,  'Is there a park or public space (not a road) that is within a 5 minute walk of your home?, the answer is likely no.  Roswell, we still have some work to do here and the focus, in my opinion, should be on small neighborhood parks instead of big multi-use parks with ballfields and such.

Source: AJC

Can your children or those in your neighborhood walk to school?

Judging from the non-scientific results of my morning commute behind countless yellow buses, I would guess that not too many kids in Roswell are walking to school.  Again this is a guess, but I would estimate that less than 5% of kids in Roswell are regularly walking to school.  This is unfortunate as many of our children today could be getting much needed exercise while walking to school and we could simultaneously increase air quality by having fewer cars on the roads and decreasing the congestion that is all too common around schools these days.  Additionally, walking to school is a lost form of independence in today's society.  Too many parents, for many reasons, won't even allow their children to walk to school even when the walk is reasonable.  Unfortunately, this choice isn't even available to most parents due to the way we have developed our neighborhoods and schools.  

To check just how walkable the public schools in Roswell are, I looked up the Walk Score for each of the 13 schools.  What I found wasn't surprising.  Eight of the thirteen schools are in Car-dependent locations while five are in Somewhat Walkable locations.  Now, I understand that this is not the perfect measure of whether it is easy for kids to walk to school but it does give a good indication of the density and environment surrounding the school.  Our development patterns have unfortunately favored big-box schools that are situated in areas that are not a walkable distance from a meaningful portion of the homes in the area and sited on parcels of land so large that it discourages walking.  Below is a breakdown of the Roswell schools with their Walk Score:

Elementary Schools

- Hembree Springs - 37 (Car-dependent)

Hillside - 52 (Somewhat Walkable)

Esther Jackson - 42 (Car-dependent)

Mimosa - 66 (Somewhat Walkable)

Mountain Park - 22 (Car-dependent)

Northwood - 42 (Car-dependent)

River Eves - 11 (Car-dependent)

Roswell North - 37 (Car-dependent)

Sweet Apple - 26 (Car-dependent)

Middle Schools

- Crabapple - 49 (Car-dependent)

- Elkins Point - 65 (Somewhat Walkable)

High Schools

- Centennial - 54 (Somewhat Walkable)

- Roswell - 65 (Somewhat Walkable)

Our leaders know that walking to school is a priority.  One of the three initiatives under our current Transportation Plan is the Complete Streets initiative.  Built in to the Complete Streets initiative is the Safe Routes to School program which is priority number one in that section of the Transportation Plan.  Our the focus is there but it will take time.  I did check the Georgia Safe Routes to School website and I did not see any Roswell schools listed as partners out of the 105 Georgia schools listed.  The one thing I wish our leaders were giving more consideration to is smaller more disbursed schools.  At least at the elementary and middle school levels. 

 

Resources

Georgia Safe Routes to School

National Center for Safe Routes to School

Does Pedestrian & Bicycle Commuting Exist in Roswell?

If you recall from our previous Smart Growth Roswell post, we posed the question "Are most of Roswell's residents able to walk or bike to work?"  As you probably know, one of the key components to successful new urbanism is walkability and connectivity.  We also think that the ability to safely ride a bike is integral to successful urbanism.  So, we wanted to take a look at these two forms of alternative transportation here in Roswell.  Primarily, we wanted to find out just how many of are walking or riding to work. 

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the most up to date statistics on this but rest assured that these numbers probably haven't changes significantly.  According to City Data, in 2000, only 0.1% of commutes in Roswell were by bicycle and 1.1% of commutes were by foot.  Additionally, 84% of commutes were made by solo drivers while another 11% were carpools.  I'd like to see up to date statistics but I think the story would be very similar.  Of course, bicycle awareness in Roswell has come a long way since 2000 just as it has all over the country but there still aren't too many individuals ready to brave the roads to commute to work.  There are also many neighborhoods that lack adequate sidewalks or bicycling facilities.  Now, just because people aren't walking or biking to work doesn't mean that they can't.  

So, to try and gauge where our community actually is, we took a look at a 2007 city survey.  The survey was sent to a sample of 1351 residents and 456 responded.  They were asked to rate their experience and satisfaction on 11 key livability metrics.  Ease of Bicycling in the City was rated as follows; Excellent 12%, Good 21%, Fair 37%, Poor 30%.  This was the largest percentage in the Poor category for any of the metrics that were surveyed.  Next worst were traffic flow/signal timing and ease of walking in the city at 25% and 19% respectively.  This screams loud and clear that we are not where we need to be when it comes to giving Roswell residents adequate alternatives to the automobile.  

That being said, not all is bad.  We are making good progress with the sidewalks with the Holcomb Bridge Rd. project, the connection of the Big Creek Greenway to the Alpharetta greenway and the Midtown streetscaping project.  Additionally, We also have multiple bike boxes.  The one pictured here is at the new Grimes Bridge/Oxbo intersection.  Here's a quick video from StreetFilms about bike boxes if you don't know what they are or how to use one.


Here's what we can look forward to in the future.  This is from the city's transportation plan. The vision for Roswell's bicycle and pedestrian plan consists of three components. 

1. Multi-Use trails along creek systems, parks, and natural areas. 

2. A “Roswell Loop” that establishes the premier bicycle and pedestrian corridors of the city and connects to every major park and civic resource. 

3. A “complete streets” approach on the key roads that connect to parks, neighborhoods, and schools.  

Additionally, Roswell is the only city in Georgia to be designated a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Cyclists.  All in all, we are heading in the right direction but we still have a long way to go before any meaningful percentage of our residents will be able to walk or bike to work.  Let's keep working to get off of this car dependence.  


Other Resources

Bike Roswell

Roswell Bicycles

Roswell Cycling Festival

RAMBO (Roswell Alpharetta Mountain Biking Association)

Atlanta

Atlanta Bicycle Coalition

PEDS


The Smart Growth Roswell Project

One of the goals of New Urban Roswell is to take an objective look at where our city is currently and where we should go.  The principles that I believe in, those of New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Sustainability, will be the guiding winds.  

We will be looking at the city and our environment mainly through the lenses of the books Suburban Nation and The Smart Growth Manual.  They will serve as knowledgeable guides through our city and will help determine what is working, what is not working and what will work in the future. 

We will also look at city plans to help us determine where the plans are taking us.  Hopefully, they are taking us in the right direction.  I hope that as this site grows and becomes more of a compendium that our citizens can use as a reference and tool to effect positive change within our community.  

To start off, I'd like to pose some questions?

- Are most of Roswell's residents able to walk or bike to work?

- Can your children or those in your neighborhood walk to school?

- Is there a park or public space (not a road) that is within a 5 minute walk of your home?

- Are drivers able to effectively move around town without accessing congested arterial roads?

- Do you live in a neighborhood with homes that are valued outside of a standard range for all of the homes in the community?

- Do you have more than two entrances/exits to your neighborhood?

- Do most of the homes in your neighborhoods look similar?

- Do you have effective transportation options other than the automobile?

- Does your region have a comprehensive plan in place to curtail sprawl, encourage walkability, facilitate connectivity and movement of people?

We'll take a look at all of these questions individually in coming posts.  But first, if you are unfamiliar with the concepts of new urbanism and smart growth, now might be a good time to familiarize yourself.  Be careful though because you might start to see your reality as something that you don't particularly like.  

We'll start with New Urbanism.  You can see a few videos here, here and here.  Or if you prefer to read an overview, check this page from the Congress for the New Urbanism out.  I'll quickly summarize though.  New urbanism is based upon classic principles of town design.  You could actually call it old urbanism or traditional neighborhood design.  Towns like Alexandria, VA, Charleston, SC and the French Quarter in New Orleans are all great examples of what would be New Urban communities if built today.  Towns have a discernable town center that is typically within a 5-10 minute walk of most residences.  There is generally a variety of housing types ranging from condos above shops to townhomes to single family homes with yards.  The neighborhood is built in a way that it encourages a mixture of ages and ethnicities.  This all directly opposes the monoculture theology of suburban sprawl.  Unfortunately, with the exception of the Historic Roswell, South Atlanta Street corridor, our city does not currently exhibit many of these characteristics.  

When you look at new urbanism, you see that it is focused mostly on neighborhoods and what is contained within those neighborhoods or smaller towns.  You can either take a step down a level and deal with the sustainability of the buildings within those neighborhoods or you can take a step up and look at the overall sustainability of the region.  This is where smart growth comes in.  

The term smart growth has been around for years and many have found it to be presumptuous in nature.  How can they know what is good for me and my city?  Well, when you take a look at the principles of smart growth, you see that it is actually quite particular to the specific region where it is being applied.  For example, the region as a whole must come together and agree upon goals and initiatives of where development should be targeted, avoided and prohibited.  This process requires an enormous amount of thought, research and planning around land use and transportation.  It is different for every city or region.  As outlined in The Smart Growth Manual, the main areas of concern to ensure that growth is indeed smart are the Region, the Neighborhood, the Street and the Building.  For a quick primer on smart growth, you can watch a video here or read about it here.

Now that you have a quick primer on the principles of smart growth and new urbanism.  We'll begin to take a look at the questions posed earlier in this post in upcoming posts.