Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Being Futurewise: Transit Oriented Communities

I once had a history buff for a coworker. The walls of Henry’s (not his real name) office were plastered with his treasures, namely laminated newspaper clippings from before WW2. Henry was an oldie like me. Like me, he could remember a world without freeways, car oriented commercial strips, or suburban sprawl. Like me, he did not drive to work. But instead of biking he took the bus from the north end of the city and transferred downtown to another south bound bus. His commute took over an hour each way but that gave Henry plenty of time to read history books.

When we were first becoming acquainted Henry asked me if I was interested in history. I had to think about this. I read history only as it relates to other interests like creating a global democratic government, replacing the automobile with bikes and transit, etc. “Actually, I’m more of a futurist than a historian,” I said.

I told him about how I was working with a neighborhood planning group to make sure a pedestrian friendly town center would be built around a future light rail station in my neighborhood. I described how our ugly piece of commercial strip with its acres of parking lots would one day resemble a transit village like the many that line rail systems in major transit cities like Copenhagen and Singapore. There would be lots of bikes parked at the station. People would leave their cars at home and walk to the trains stopping at coffee houses and park benches to chat or read newspapers.

“Like in the old days,” sighed Henry. (So much for my claim to being a futurist.)

Our long awaited light rail system in the Seattle/Puget Sound region is scheduled to begin running in July of this year, 2009. My neighborhood has a plan and design guidelines which have attracted developers who want to replace our yawning parking lots with attractive mixed use residential and commercial buildings with stores along the sidewalks and housing above__like in Copenhagen and Singapore,

Like Henry you have to look at history to see why so many US cities like Seattle have been uglified with parking lots, strip malls, big box stores, and CO2 emissions that create global warming. New Urbanist, James Howard Kunstler summed it up in one phrase, “zoning laws.” After World War II our cities created zoning to make everything convenient for the automobile. They made it illegal to build pedestrian friendly places like the old main streets of America’s small towns or the transit villages of Copenhagen. For miles our major arterials had to be built wide to accommodate fast moving traffic and zoned “C1” (one story commercial with acres of parking required) Sorry no residences. Who would want to live there anyway?

In the past decade, some neighborhood planning in Seattle has been directed toward reversing this trend. The plans allow zoning “overlays” for denser pedestrian oriented places. The idea is that people will want to live near light rail stations with community gardens, public parks, stores along the street.

A Washington organization called “Futurewise” has proposed a state law, HB1490 Transit Oriented Communities which embodies a complete reversal of post World War II zoning regulations. Motivated by Futurewises’ mission to reduce urban sprawl, the proposed bill requires neighborhoods within a half mile of light rail stations to build denser town centers like the one planned for my neighborhood. It would require 50 dwelling units per acre in larger urban growth centers like downtown and the University District. Other station areas have to adopt plans with similar effects, namely the building of denser, mixed use residential and commercial town centers. There will be no minimum parking requirements in the future town centers. HB1490 is therefore the complete antithesis of zoning ordinances that created “car world,” and urban sprawl. If this new zoning law succeeds half as well as the old ordinances that have so uglified the American landscape, we will be living in a futuristic world that will be more like the good old days.

No comments: