Density Without Mixed-use

P Street NW. From

Washington, DC is a world-class city. Beyond the monumental core, there are walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of brightly colored rowhouses and tree-lined streets. Transit is extensive and generally reliable, and, barring further interference from the city council, is expanding in service. Although there are some things, such as the largely blanket height limit, that can get some planner’s goats, it is mostly an urbanist’s dream.

And because it’s so nice (and also because the height limit effectively limits housing supply), even those making above average incomes have trouble finding affordable housing here. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment downtown at over $2,000, many people are forced out onto the urban fringe. And that’s why I don’t live in Washington DC.

RoadI live here.

Arlington, Virginia, to be specific. And while it has taken some adjusting after living in Center City, Philadelphia, there has been one major difference that I’ve noticed between here and anywhere else I’ve lived:

Density CompTraditional cities are great places to walk. You have a lot of services, and a lot of residences close by to be served by them. It’s usually a bit frustrating driving, but you have so many other transportation options that it’s not really a loss.

The types of suburbs that I’ve grown up in have either been around slow-growth cities, such as Pittsburgh, or cities that never really had a tradition of density or regionalism anyway, like Provo, Utah. These suburbs have low housing densities, consisting almost entirely of single-family homes. Work is found in industrial or office parks, and shopping happens at strip malls. With all the uses separated, driving between them is pretty much the only reasonable way to get around. But since everything is at a much lower density, the traffic is only particularly bad on the main arterials.

What’s new to me about Washington suburbs (and particularly the inner ring) is that the demand for housing is high enough to necessitate high-density housing, but it was built in the era of single-use zoning, so the work and recreation are all far away. Like in the low-density suburbs, driving is usually the only option for getting around, but because of the higher density and the greater number of people, a huge amount of land becomes devoted to vehicle infrastructure. Even where it is possible to walk, the huge parking lots and wide roads make it undesirable.

King St-01

Seminary Rd-01Although I personally consider these environments largely unappealing, I think the fact that they already have the density to support mixed uses does make many of them decent candidates for suburban retrofitting, something I hope to examine more in later posts.

And it’s not like all of the DC region’s modern developments are devoid of urbanism. I’ll refer you to my friend Dan Reed, Silver Spring super booster, to learn about the ongoing urbanism there. Although Vishaan Chakrabarti calls it out for its traffic congestion in his book A Country of Cities (which, as John Norquist has argued, isn’t necessarily bad; places with a lot of traffic have traffic because people want to be there), Bethesda has a decent walkable core and strong mass transit connections to the rest of the region. And although the transition from single-family homes to high density urbanism is stark, and it has been described by some as “city-lite” (or worse, DC without all the poor minorities), the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington is dense, mixed-use, and transit accessible.

Aerial view over Ballston, Arlington. From

And further afield, there are some areas that had the right idea but are a little lighter on execution. Reston, although suffering from a similar zoning-induced stark transition to that of Arlington, could be thought of as a “transit-ready” community with the upcoming opening of Metro’s Silver Line (although the station is a bit of a hike from Reston Town Center). And the New Urbanist darling of Kentlands, out on the edge of the region in Gaithersburg, is a pleasant, walkable community, even if transit options are limited and all of the commercial activity is just on one side of it.

The Washington, DC region, as evidenced by its high housing prices, is under-developed and, even where it is already dense, it is under-urbanized. But there are opportunities and, in some very small and limited ways, even the political will to fix things, hopefully for the better. I look forward to investigating urbanism in my new home and sharing it here, with you.


A Planner’s Commitment: Designed to Fail the Small Scale

Images of stores in the UK and US. From

I don’t think it would be going to far to call this post from Ryan Wozniak a rant. That being said, it is a good rant that explains why Tesco, a British business focusing on quick, healthy meals, failed in the US (as Fresh & Easy): the British owners didn’t understand American urban design. Tesco has survived in walkable, mixed-use areas, and wasn’t able to adapt to American drivable sub-urbanism. Wozniak lists why it failed, and what could be done to prevent it from happening to someone else in the future.

10 Techniques for Making Cities More Walkable – Design – The Atlantic Cities


Kaid Benfield, one of my favorites, recently posted this list of walkability ideas from Jeff Speck’s recent book, Walkable City. This list includes:

  1. Put cars in their place. Streets are public spaces for people, not conveyors for cars.
  2. Mix the uses. In particular create more affordable housing in growing neighborhoods prone to gentrification.
  3. Get the parking right. Consolidate it and make people pay for it.
  4. Let transit work. Plan transit in tandem with urban investment, make housing dense enough to support it, and make it an enjoyable experience (I’m looking at you, SEPTA).
  5. Protect the pedestrian. Cars go slower, and thus pedestrians are safer, when drivers are afraid of crashing into things. Speck, and some others, encourage getting rid of signage and road striping all together and forcing drivers to concentrate.
  6. Welcome bikes. Cycling allows people to have another choice beyond the car.
  7. Shape the spaces. Create outdoor rooms and a sense of enclosure.
  8. Plant trees. Trees improve auto safety, naturally cool cities, and contribute to stormwater retention.
  9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. Interesting architecture will keep people entertained and encourage them to walk.
  10. Pick your winners. Focus initially on downtowns and transit corridors.

Benfield also has a few critiques for Speck. He criticizes the “cars suck” idea that he and many designers (I will admit, often myself included) have a habit of exhibiting. He also criticizes Speck’s dismissal of green space as important to the city, although Benfield does agree that it is important to make sure green spaces contribute to the urban nature of a place rather than making it feel more suburban or rural. He also agrees with John Norquist’s statement that there is good and bad congestion, and that small cities such as Pittsburgh shouldn’t try congestion pricing because it will give people just another reason to stay out of the city.

McCandless Crossing, or The Town Center is a Lie!


McCandless Crossing is a development in McCandless, Pennsylvania, which has been under construction for years and which will be implementing its fourth and final phase soon. Their website bills it as “a central, walkable, livable community that will synergize [sic] all the surrounding amenities with connectivity and by mixing uses.” This is a totally noble pursuit, but the design that the developers are proposing will not accomplish this goal. I want to discuss some ways that they could actually do it.Location-01First of all, is McCandless Crossing in the right location? My first thought was to undergo a McHargian analysis of land suitability for development.McHargThis shows that the location is just the wrong one for a dense, mixed-use development like a town center. The site is best suited for low-density housing development, as it is one of the few remaining stands of dense forest in the township.

My next thought was, wouldn’t it make sense for a town center to actually be near the center of town? I looked at intersections of major roads, and the intersection of McKnight Road and Ingomar Road is very close to the geographic center of the township, but it is a multi-level interchange. The closest street-level intersection is Perry Highway and Ingomar Road, which I think would not be a bad spot. There is a small commercial development there right now with way too much parking that could be better utilized through denser development. But my next though was, is it better to be near the geographic center or the population center? With that in mind, I undertook a density analysis.McCandless-02McCandless is overwhelmingly low density. That being said, the highest concentrations of people are along Perry Highway and Cumberland Road, adjacent to the North Allegheny Schools campus, Northland Library and the Community College of Allegheny County; and along Babcock Boulevard between Duncan Avenue and Cumberland Road, adjacent to La Roche University and UPMC Passavant Hospital. CombinedSo basically, there are at least three locations better than the chosen one for a town center for McCandless Township, with the best probably being either Perry Highway and Cumberland or Bigelow and Duncan. But let’s say that that isn’t an option and, for whatever reason, you want to develop your town center on the existing McCandless Crossing site. What would be the best way to approach it?

The first question for me seems to be whether or not you locate it astride McKnight Road or on just one side of the road. Doing it on both sides of McKnight was my first thought, as it would allow for more room for development and more access from either side of McKnight. The issue with that would be getting pedestrians across McKnight. It is a major highway that is not safe for people on foot, and people are used to blowing through there at high speed. There is no way to make a road both high speed and pedestrian friendly. The closest you could come is to turn McKnight Road into a boulevard.


McKnight Boulevard-01Although I do think that this would be in the best long-term interest of the township as it is forced to densify, for now, it would cause too much trouble. That leaves us with focusing development on one side of McKnight.


Calthorpe’s TOD concept, and it’s somewhat analogous Traditional Neighborhood Development, include the idea of creating a walkable Main Street that runs perpendicular to a major arterial. This allows for a measure of compromise between walkable urbanism and drivable suburbanism. A good example is Orenco Station outside of Portland, Oregon.OrencoOrenco Station has a mixed use Main Street along a public space axis that runs perpendicular to a major arterial. Parking for some of the anchor retailers faces the arterial so that there is easy vehicular access while it is still screened from the walkable neighborhood part of the development. I think it is very important to have the Main Street intersect with the arterial so that there is at least a hint of the walkable town center just off the road. This is the problem with Belmar; if you didn’t know there was a cool neighborhood behind it, all you would see is the suburban strip.Real Town Center Part DoneMy plan for McCandless Crossing would be to reorient all the anchors so that they gather around just a few large parking lots facing McKnight Road. The Main Street runs parallel and is lined with small shops on the ground floor and other uses (hotel, office, and residential) above. The small retail lines and softens the anchors to make them seem more walkable. The theater is important, because it can have lobbies on both sides so that people can both walk to it and drive to it. There is a little bit more residential than other upper floor compatible uses, so apartments are laid out around a public green.Real Town Center Full DoneAnother issue is that the plan as it is designed is a retail power center and not a true mixed use town center, the major distinction being that the retail is meant to be supported by regional drivers and not local walkers, and as such there is nowhere near enough residential to support it. I wanted to expand the proposed uses to create a real town center, including range of residential types that fades into the largely single-family context, so the residential steps down from apartments to townhouses to small homes.

McCandless needs a town center, and McCandless Crossing could well be it; they just need to totally change nearly everything about their site plan. It can still serve drivers and be a regional retail destination, but it doesn’t need to be suburban schlock that won’t age well or contribute to the future and betterment of the people of the township. With some slight modifications, McCandless Crossing can become a real town center and help McCandless become a real town, that actually is “a central, walkable, livable community that will synergize [sic] all the surrounding amenities with connectivity and by mixing uses.”

Spotlight on Bailey Island, Maine

2012-11-22 09.32.57My family likes to travel for Thanksgiving, but this year my mom decided that she also wanted to cook a turkey, so we needed to rent a place that had an oven. We eventually settled on Bailey Island on the coast of Maine. Though this place is a little bit different from most of the ones I’ve spotlighted so far, its place character is very interesting and a great example of a very small settlement.
USA_Maine_location_map-01Bailey Island is about an hours drive from Portland, but a lot of that is spent driving north to Brunswick and then back south to Portland. It is the furthest south of a series of islands that make up about half of the municipality of Harpswell, Maine, the other half being a point to the west of the islands that is connected to the mainland. Harpswell largely has a very rural character, with homes on their own or clustered branching off of the main roads and nestled between dense pine groves. From my casual observation, it seemed that the most densely developed part of the community were Bailey Island and the southern tip of neighboring Orr’s Island. Despite this comparatively high level of development, Bailey Island lacks certain necessities such as a full-scale grocery store, with the closest being in Brunswick. Because of this, the low population of about 400 permanent residents, and the still largely rural character of the place, I would classify Bailey Island as a suburban hamlet.

Bailey Island does have a concentration of services near its center. These include a graveyard (which on narrow islands it is very important to have at one of the highest points on the island), fire station, restaurant, post office, general store (which includes another restaurant), church, and “library hall,” which from my observation seemed more like a social hall than a library. These are all located along Harswell Islands Road, the main road on the island that connects it to the other islands and eventually to the mainland, and that all other roads branch off of. None of the roads on Bailey Island have sidewalks, but traffic is so light that I could walk on the edge of the road and feel safe.

Bailey Island has horizontal mixed uses across the island in an almost casual arrangement. Mixed into the houses are churches, stores, restaurants, offices, and even a flower nursery. It just seems like it’s no big deal for people there to live next to a season ice cream stand, which may cause a real stir in other parts of the country (think of the traffic!).

One of the most important uses mixed into the hamlet are work spaces. The two main industries on the island seem to be hospitality (mostly based around renting cabins, although there are a few motels) and fishing, especially lobstering. Evidence of this industry could be seen all up and down the island, from lobster pots stacked up in people’s yards to the lobsterman monument at Land’s End, the southern tip of the island. The main piers were concentrated on Mackerel Cove to the south and near Cook’s Restaurant to the north. There were even signs warning people transporting boats about their rigging coming in contact with overhead power lines.2012-11-23 08.49.34Another interesting point is that there was good wayfinding signage all along the island. Virtually everything–restaurants, gift shops, churches, boat rentals–had a wayfinding sign along the main road. Although the signage is definitely auto-oriented in its height and size, it made getting around very easy.

Bailey Island is a great place. Even though it is not an urban place, it has a strong sense of character that makes it very distinct and lovely. Urban environments aren’t for everyone, but not all rural environments are created equal, and Bailey Island is one of the best small places I have been to.

Spotlight on Port Isaac, Cornwall, UK



I will start off by saying that I have never been to Port Isaac. So why am I spotlighting a place I’ve never been to? Mostly because of this place:



For those of you who don’t recognize this, it’s the home and office of Dr. Martin Ellingham, the main character from the show Doc Martin, which I have watched all five seasons of in something like two or three weeks. The town in known as Portwenn in the show, but it is shot in Port Isaac, and after watching the show I felt compelled to do a Google Streetview tour of the city, and I think there are some important lessons to learn from it.

I think that it is important to understand why Port Isaac is where it is before we discuss why it looks the way it does. The town is built on the cliffs surrounding a long beach with large tidal differences and few large rocks, making it a perfect place for boats to anchor without having to build a formal pier. The fishermen simply beach their boats at low tide and walk up the beach to the town. Though the port was built in the reign of King Henry VIII, the center of the town as we know it today dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.

This means that the roads were built primarily for people and manually-powered vehicles traveling at a low speed. The roads are narrow, windy, and fairly steep. There seem to not really be any blocks to speak of, just a few main roads radiating from the port that have short side streets branching off of them. There is very little in the way of private green space, although some houses do have gardens in the rear, but they come right up to the street. Uses are largely mixed, with restaurants, pubs, chemists/pharmacies, and schools mixed in with houses. Most buildings have no setbacks from each other. Each building, despite many of them sporting either fieldstone or whitewashed facades, is unique, and creates a series of surprises as one walks the street. Despite being built for people or horsecarts, the streets are still largely accessible by car, they just have to drive slowly and respect pedestrians in the pathway.

Then we come to a sort of transitional area. The buildings here, though some of them are still of older vintage, are mostly from the early modern period. Buildings in this area are becoming more formalized, rectilinear, and though still largely custom built are beginning to include more manufactured materials, especially windows. Buildings are beginning to be set back from the street, and many have made space for cars. This is first part of the city where people felt it was necessary to separate pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and austere sidewalks lacking trees and much in the way of width begin to show up. Although largely residential, and much of that detached homes, there are some stores and public facilities thrown into the mix. Although this area is not the picturesque village that people come to Port Isaac to see, it’s still a reasonably nice area, especially if you value a larger home and a yard more than the beauty, character, and convenience of the older town.

At the southeast end of the town is where the quality of development takes a nosedive. There are a series of single family and townhouse developments that are cheaply built and mass produced. My guess is that a developer somewhere came in and saw that he could sell houses for a huge mark-up because of the sea view, and by building the cheapest houses possible he could maximize his profits. These places have true cul-de-sacs, and the car is every present. There are sidewalks, but nowhere to walk to. A great lesson on how to build a complete human environment is a half mile away, and these places look like the builder never even saw it.

Port Isaac shows the decline in quality of development over the past century, but only because it has such great examples to start with. From the underwhelming edge of town to the nice transition zone and finally to the exemplary harbor area, this town shows a range of environments in a very small space that a student of urban design can learn a lot from. Someday I’ll have to make a visit and take it in in person.

Spotlight on City Creek, Salt Lake City, Utah

City Creek is a recently completed, Mormon Church-funded development in the center of Salt Lake City. In some ways, it does a great job of bringing a facelift to parts of downtown Salt Lake City. In others, it really just feels like a big mall.

Uncharacteristically, I drove to City Creek, and my first experience with the development was the parking. The development has no surface parking; there are three levels of parking located directly under the three block development. In some locations the parking is accessed in the very center of the street. This actually does a great job of narrowing and calming Salt Lake’s infamously wide streets, and creates mid-block crossings on the long blocks of this city.

Part of what I thought was really interesting was how some parts of the development, especially along the outer edge, have not changed. Street improvements at West Temple and 100 South that predated the development are still there. A number of pre-existing buildings on Main Street are still there, and integrate fairly seamlessly with new construction. ZCMI, which was bought out by Macy’s a few years ago, has a great old building which has been lovingly restored and has a great street frontage.

Although there is plenty of parking, City Creek is very transit accessible. Salt Lake’s TRAX line comes north along Main Street and turns west along North Temple Street, with two stations adjacent to City Creek.

There have been significant improvements to the public realm. A small park has been installed at State Street and 100 South. Salt Lake’s wide streets give them the flexibility to create very wide sidewalks, and improvements range from simple trees and lights to significant seating areas with unique and beautiful seats, tables, and planters.

An interesting effect of the new development has been tangential street activity. I saw a handful of new food trucks in the area. On the other hand, there were more homeless people in the area than I was used to seeing in Salt Lake.

City Creek seems to have two sides: a street side, which has a real downtown major city feel; and an inner side, which despite a mix of uses really just feels like a mall. Between these areas are a series of transitional public spaces. These feature entrance markers that cleverly conceal ventilation for the underground parking and speakers that blast pop music, adding to the mall feel. The creek that the development is named for snakes throughout the area, with dramatic naturalistic features including rock outcroppings and native plants. Many of these areas feature fountains and sculptures, including my hated seagulls. There are many high-quality seating areas throughout.

What sort of puzzles me is that City Creek is not a single-use shopping area like a suburban mall; it features office uses and a whole lot of residential, including two new major residential towers. The central parts of two of the three blocks have nice squares built around public water features. But despite these features, it doesn’t feel like a mixed-use neighborhood; it feels like a mall.My favorite feature was a small corner of the development along Regent Street. As the street enters the development, it curves to the east and uphill, and becomes a shared use, curbless street, where bollards protect people from cars and lights cris-cross the right-of-way. The street is cozy, visually interesting, and generally very delightful.

City Creek is sort of two-faced: it does successfully contribute to a high-quality streetscape along the public rights-of-way of Salt Lake City, even calming traffic and activating pedestrian life; yet much of the development, especially on the block interiors, feels like just another mall. I had mixed feelings about it, but it could certainly be worse. And I thought it was funny that, despite the effort to make this a metropolitan development, things about it are still very Mormon:SIDENOTE: As I write this, the eye of Superstorm Sandy is passing near Philadelphia. I feel awful that I am here in Arizona while my friends, and especially my wife, are facing this storm back east. I just want to say to all my East Coast friends, family and readers, stay safe, and I look forward to rejoining you soon.

%d bloggers like this: