Shared principles Chardon
for development

By Mark L. Gillem, AIA, AICP

Northeast Ohio is blessed with a beautiful natural environment and a long list of attractive cities, suburbs, and towns: from Lake Erie to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park; from Clevelands revitalized warehouse district to Akrons new downtown stadium; from the bungalows of Cleveland Heights and Bay Village to the town squares of Medina and Hudson.

But all of these places are in danger of being overwhelmed by the rampant suburban development occurring in every county in the region. For example, the charming country roads now found in Geauga and Medina counties may soon turn into clogged arterials lined with parking lots and strip malls. The rolling fields of Portage and Summit counties may soon be enveloped by a tidal wave of tract homes and apartment complexes. And the beautiful first-ring suburbs of Shaker Heights and Lakewood may experience decline and disinvestment.

Why, despite a long history of creating remarkable places, will these unsettling changes occur? If youve kept up with the latest debates in planning and architecture, you may think you know the answer: suburban sprawl. However, sprawl is only the symptom. And, as with any symptom, sprawl can be easily measured. In fact, sprawl can be measured in just four ways:

  • low-density, single-use development (think of residential subdivisions with houses on acre lots or the big box power retail centers surrounded by oceans of asphalt that are rarely half full);
  • isolated land use patterns that unnaturally segregate even compatible uses like residential and retail areas (just go visit Streetsboro where the stores are in retail strips isolated from neighborhoods);
  • automobile-oriented design (have you ever tried to walk to a Home Depot?); and
  • uncontrolled outward growth (I lost count of the Land For Sale: Will Build to Suit signs in the seven county region - and who will these developments suit anyway?).

The real disease

If sprawl is the symptom, what then is the actual sickness? The sickness is an inability to communicate and act on our real dreams and desires for better places to live, work, and play.

Oddly enough, our grandparents were not afflicted with this damaging disease. After all, they built the places most of us love, from the town center of Chardon to the tree-lined streets of Wadsworth. Over the last 60 years, however, the common language that was used to build these wonderful places has been lost. And without a shared language for development, chaos reigns supreme.

Like the people of Babal, we have been dispersed into a thousand factions speaking individual and incoherent languages. Developers talk about return on investment and highest and best use. Real estate agents talk about resale value and curb appeal. Bankers talk about balloon payments and interest rates. Transportation engineers talk about vehicle miles traveled and capacity per hour. Planners talk about land use zones and floor-to-area-ratios. Architects talk about deconstruction and design-build. And politicians talk about re-election and quality of life.

Unfortunately, no one talks in terms that you and I can understand. Simple phrases (and the concepts such phrases represent) like town square and shady boulevard have been swept away in the flood of specialized and incompatible languages used by a growing number of so-called experts.

Architect and planner Christopher Alexander writes about this problem in two of the best books on development ever published: The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. In the latter, he writes that towns and buildings will not be able to come alive, unless they are made by all people in society, and unless these people share a common pattern language, within which to make these buildings& Without such a common language, we are destined to build more places that inspire no affection in our hearts.

A price to pay

As you may have guessed, there is a high price to pay for such development. From an environmental standpoint, 100,000 acres of wetlands and 1 million acres of open space are destroyed every year to support sprawling development nationwide. Our cars and trucks spew 12 billion pounds of chemicals every year so that we can drive to work, then to the grocery store, then back home. As Maryland Governor Parris Glendening noted, If we, or any other state, continue with the same sprawling patterns of development over the next 25 years at the same rate as the last 25 years, we will consume more open space, tear down more woodlands, and pave over more farms than we did in the previous 365 years of the states existence.

From a financial standpoint, sprawl costs all of us. Existing investments in infrastructure in the existing urban areas of Northeast Ohio are left underutilized while new roads, sewer treatment plants, and power stations are built in the exurbs adjacent to I-271 and I-76. Nationwide, the current patterns of development have forced us to drive eight times more per capita than we did in 1983 - and 70 percent of this increase in driving is directly linked to sprawl. Families now need two, three or more cars to even survive. In many neighborhoods, walking to the store or to work is simply not an option. With an average cost of $6,000 per car per year according to the American Automobile Association, these extra cars are costing families both time and money.

Imagine if families could live in neighborhoods with effective transit or within walking distance of work, retail, and recreation areas. They might be able to get by on one car instead of two. One clear benefit: a family with a median income (1999) of $47,800 looking for a home would have $50,000 more buying power. Thats quite a bit more house!

Families arent the only victims of sprawl. Municipalities suffer as well. For example, in Milwaukee, a new single-family home in the suburbs pays on average $5,000 in property taxes but costs the city almost $10,000 in municipal services. Thats why property taxes on existing homes may rise even when new homes are built in the same municipality. However, in attractive, higher density developments, like those found in sections of Lakewood, the ratio is about even.

Social costs

Sprawl also has severe social costs. Nearly every week national publications, from Time to USA Today, publish stories lamenting the loss of community in America today. While defining community can be difficult, creating one can be even harder in todays sprawling suburbs. In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett writes about the precipitous drop in the actual places where communities can grow. And sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book The Great Good Place, argues that the lack of places in todays urban areas supportive of informal interaction has created deficits in public life. By his estimates, the United States has lost half of the informal gathering places that existed in the 1950s. The disappearance of cafés, taverns, and corner stores has implications for community life. Oldenburg writes that Experiences occur in places conducive to them, or they do not occur at all. When certain kinds of places disappear, certain experiences also disappear.

Likewise, in suburbs without town squares, sidewalks, and front porches, residents are more likely to spend their time ensconced in their cars and great rooms rather than in the public realm building community. As Wolf Von Eckardt argues, What ails usmost of us anywayis not that we are incapable of living a satisfactory and creative life in harmony with ourselves, but that our habitat does not offer sufficient opportunities. It hems us in. It isolates us. It irritates us.

What does this isolation and irritation lead to? For one, sociologists cite isolation and boredom as a contributing factor in the dramatic rise of teenage suicide, almost unheard of 50 years ago. In fact, national rates of teenage suicide are lower in urban areas than in suburbs. And the soccer mom syndrome, with mom spending her precious time shuttling kids back and forth from school to soccer practice to Boy Scout meetings, would be alleviated if Johnny could simply walk to these places. A letter (reproduced in Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream) to town planners and architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, sums this up best:

Dear Architects:
I am a mother of four children who are not able to leave the yard because of our citys design. Ever since we have moved here I have felt like a caged animal only let out for a ride in the car. It is impossible to walk even to the grocery store two blocks away. If our family wants to go for a ride we need to load two cars with four bikes and a baby car and drive four miles to the only bike path in this city of over a quarter million people. I cannot exercise unless I drive to a health club that I had to pay $300 to, and that is four and a half miles away. There is no sense of community here on my street, either, because we all have to drive around in our own little worlds that take us 50 miles a day to every corner of the surrounding five miles.

What is working?

Given the social, fiscal, and environmental costs of our dreadful development practices, what can be done? Since the real problem is the loss of a common language for development that all of us understand, agree with, and support, we need to recapture that language. We need to develop a shared vocabulary for design and construction that can guide future physical development.

To do this, we first need to look around our cities, suburbs, and towns and ask three questions: What is working? Why is it working? Where can it work in the future?

For example, many people I talked with during my recent research in Northeast Ohio lauded the numerous small towns with their town centers. From Lodi to Painesville, we know town centers, with their mix of uses, public greens, and increased density of development work exceedingly well. They work because they meet our deep need to have a central public place in every town where we can gather to be part of a community.

Now, how can a broad and diverse community define and come to agreement on the principles or words required to make up a shared language for development? One approach is to begin by conducting what I call a Built Environment Rating. The concept is straightforward: simply go out and take pictures of the existing built environment in your neighborhood or city and arrange them in a sequence so that community members can rate the images. Professor Anton Nelessen of Rutgers University pioneered the technique, and he suggests in his book Visions for a New American Dream that Images must reflect what people see when they walk along streets, sidewalks, and public spaces&.The purpose is to review a sufficient number of images so that a common preference and consensus vision begin to emerge.

This is in fact what we did during EcoCity Clevelands workshops. Using a set of 80 images from across the region (taken out of an image bank of over 400 images), we had workshop participants rate each image on a scale of +10 to -10. We asked each person to rate those images they liked as positive and those they disliked as negative. We then took the average for each image as well as the standard deviation and found those positively rated images where there was nearly unanimous agreement. From there, we then developed 47 principles that can be used to guide development throughout the region.

More Shaker Squares

A collaborative process like this can lead to design solutions that respond to the true desires of the community. What emerged in our study is a language made up of principles that would create more places like Shaker Square and fewer places like Rockside Road. These places would be more compact, have walkable neighborhoods, and incorporate a mix of uses (shops, offices, residences) in a town center.

While this process may sound overly simplistic, it is a process that is thankfully already underway in this region. Locally, groups like EcoCity Cleveland, First Suburbs Consortium, Urban Design Center, and the Preservation Resource Center of Northeast Ohio are leading the way. Nationally, groups like the Congress for New Urbanism and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are also making a difference.

This national outlook is quite appropriate. People across the nation prefer more compact development following principles similar to the ones we developed in November. A recent survey by Smart Growth America found that 78 percent of Americans support policies to curb sprawl, and 77 percent support making neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly instead of building new highways. In my own work, I have found that no matter where I am, whether in the southeast or northwest, the results of Built Environment Ratings are similar. This is not remarkable, since we all have similar basic needs and we share many common values.

Shared principles

Building neighborhoods rather than subdivisions would minimize many of the social, fiscal, and environmental problems associated with sprawling development. Across the nation, neighborhoods are in fact being built following principles similar to those we developed in our workshops. Since these principles emerge from a careful analysis of neighborhoods usually built before 1940 (neighborhoods built after that seem to be less successful), the developments they have spawned have been called neo-traditional developments and new urbanism.

Studies have found that residents in new urbanist communities have more social contacts and they do indeed walk more and drive less. In my own case, I walk nearly everywhere now that I live in an older first-ring suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area built using a common language of development that stressed walkability and mixed-uses. My office, our church, the grocery store, bank, post office, and library are all within a short walk of our home. A few years ago when I lived in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, I drove more miles in a day than I do in a month now.

Even the American Medical Association recognizes the benefit of the walkable communities that this common language creates. With more than half of all adults overweight, the AMA Journal calls obesity an epidemic and claims that car trips have replaced trips that used to be made on foot or bicycle and helping people get back to walking or biking should be a first target in combating the obesity epidemic. Reliance on physical activity as an alternative to car use is less likely to occur in many cities and towns unless they are designed or retro-fitted to permit walking or biking.

In addition to providing a host of health and environmental benefits, these new urbanist neighborhoods sell quite well. Research done at George Washington University by Professors Mark Eppli and Charles Tu found that homeowners are willing to pay more for homes in new urbanist communities. When controlled for such variables as lot size, age, construction quality and school district, the average home in such a community commanded a $20,189 premium compared with those in conventional developments. The report found that physical attributes of a neighborhood are figuring more into peoples decision to purchase a home. For the skeptical real estate agents and developers out there, this shows that good design sells.

Sadly, it is extremely difficult to build better neighborhoods following the principles we developed. Some of the best places in the region, like Hudson and Cleveland Heights, could not be built today because of planning and zoning codes. The streets are too narrow; buildings are too close to the street; retail, residential, and commercial areas are mixed; and people live above restaurants and shops.

To permit the development people want, planning and zoning codes need to be changed; financing mechanisms need to be improved; and development practices must change - which brings us back to where I began. In the end, by using techniques like the Built Environment Rating to develop design principles, we can create a shared language of development. With this language, we can once again build places even our grandparents would be proud to call home.

Mark Gillem was EcoCity Cleveland's consultant for the Images of the Western Reserve project.



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Given the social, fiscal, and environmental costs of our dreadful development practices, what can be done? Since the real problem is the loss of a common language for development that all of us understand, agree with, and support, we need to recapture that language. We need to develop a shared vocabulary for design and construction that can guide future physical development.

To do this, we first need to look around our cities, suburbs, and towns and ask three questions: What is working? Why is it working? Where can it work in the future?


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