The good reviews continue to stack up for the book ”Walkable City”, Jeff Speck's book that I am in the process of reading. Even some of our city's leaders are commenting on the columns written in support of the book. Alas, the subtitle, How downtown can save America, one step at a time, can still mislead some of them into thinking that this is about fixing our collective downtown areas.
The general state of our own downtown is in need of more repair, but the trick is to stop bringing suburban influenced regulations to bear on very urban developments. Better yet, to remove such influences from the projects built from, say the Urban Renewal devastation forward, and continue to create a dense urban area. The residential framework surrounding the commercial core, our Infill/Redevelopment area, is receiving careful attention in regard to such regulations being applied to new projects there. Those parts of Lexington which should be considered “walkable” are getting the attention that they deserve. It is the rest of the city that we should be beginning to think about.
One of the little personal asides in Jeff's book concern his efforts to build a new house in Washington, D.C. and the regulations which demanded that he provide an off-street parking space – even though he did not own a car. The zoning code for Washington, D.C. had last been updated 1958, when they were trying to cater to the automobile and public transit looked to be a thing of the past.
Very few people gave more than a passing thought to the effect that these regulations had on a now extremely transit oriented part of the district. Was there a pressing need for off street parking spaces in a population where nearly three quarters of them owned no cars. Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail and permission was granted for the omission of the spot, especially since it was so close to a Metro stop and several bus routes, or a “transit zone”.
1958 was about the same time that Lexington began to hit its stride in growth and in growth control. We had received our share of “baby boomers” and worked hard to attract industry. Clean industry like IBM and Trane or others where a smokestack was not necessary. And they did come with all of their automobiles and car-centric attitudes plus a bias against public transit. Some of them became civic leaders and probably felt that, if it was good enough for the nation's capital – then we should be close behind. Close, but within reason.
I am aware that we cannot be favorably compared to D.C. in any way because of urban density, transit options or civic amenities, but due to those mid century regulations, some portions of the district did develop just like Lexington's subdivisions and have the same car-centric attitudes. In a 21st century world, those attitudes should be and are beginning to crack and fade.
Soon, Washington D.C. will be introducing the first update to its zoning code, after four years of development, and included in this new code are some of the ideas which Speck endorses as a way to make a city walkable. One change is that corner stores could be made legal for the first time in a half-decade, but only in the denser, rowhouse-style developments in order to discourage short car trips. Even the elimination of minimum parking requirements for parcels in “transit zones”
And, according to the Washington Post, “D.C. is only the latest American city to revise zoning rules dating to the 1950s and 1960s to reflect a new planning consensus that the car is, at best, only one player in the urban ecosystem. New York, Baltimore and Buffalo have rewrites underway.”
But it is not just about Lexington re-writing the regulations for development. It is also about re-writing the concepts on density that people have for their neighborhoods. Most often, an increase in density will imply more transients (apartment dwellers), more auto traffic and more prying eyes. What would your basic concern be with higher densities where you live.
I have tended to live where the houses are a little bit closer together, the streets are a little narrower and I don't mind the occasional multiple unit building (as long as it is in character to the neighborhood). Three story concrete block boxes with their attendant paved parking do not belong anywhere inside the limits of the mid-fifties era development. (Nor do their vinyl clad frame cousins)
This complimentary size and scale is what helps to make up a vibrant neighborhood. The density and activity of those diverse occupants coming and going on different schedules and errands. It also makes for safer neighborhoods as long as everyone keeps their eye out for the incompatibilities. The fact remains that this style is still out of favor with the developers and home builders and by extension, most of our suburban dwellers.
Walkability is not coming to our outskirts any time soon, and more is the pity.