Tuesday, January 3, 2012

WalkDenver - people are pedestrians by design (2)

There is something absolutely amazing that happens when a child takes her first steps. As she starts exploring the world in the vertical position her perception changes. And this new spatial awareness transforms her from an infant into a person. It’s almost as the ability to walk defines a child as a human being.

Through evolution humans became pedestrians. The scientists study the connection between “feet and head” and how the development of people as walkers and runners effected the development of our brains. We all know this feeling, when we pace around the room in search for a solution to a problem or go for a walk to ‘clear our head’. The connection between the brain and the feet is clear.

For thousands of years of evolution walking was the only form of transportation available to most. Our brains are “hard wired” to the experience of walking as our eyes are conditioned to register the objects at 3 miles/ hour. At this speed human brain is able to acknowledge a face of the passerby, a flower, a bird or a sign in a storefront.

Walking is also an integral part of our social life. People like to be surrounded by other human beings and walking allows for opportunity to “bump into” an old friend, a conversation, an observation, and a participation in activity.

People’s bodies and minds are designed to participate in a pedestrian lifestyle. As technological advancements allowed us to “engineer walking out of our lifestyle” we are faced with multitude of problems from depression to diabetes and from anxiety to cardiovascular disease.

While entire health industry is alarmed by increasing rates of obesity and every day we hear recommendations for adding physical activity to our lifestyle it is important to note that simple walking twice a day for 15 minutes at a time is often enough to maintain a healthy weight. But most urban and suburban areas developed in last 50-60 years are not designed for pedestrians. Intense traffic, lack of sidewalks and ped infrastructure make it unsafe to walk.

In order to allow people to be pedestrians again we need to design streets and public spaces to the “human scale”. Creating places that are safe and fun to walk will soon result with people incorporating walking into their daily routine. Walking to school, running errands on foot and using transit for longer trips will become a part of healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.

Because “people are pedestrians by design”.

For more information please visit WalkDenver

Monday, August 29, 2011

WalkDenver - People are pedestrians by design

WalkDenver is an advocacy group focused on pedestrian safety and experience. Our Vision for Denver is to become a pedestrian oriented city. We see our city as a network of well-connected neighborhoods that are people-focused, culturally vibrant, active, and economically thriving.

We recognize that walking is the most basic form of transportation. We are all pedestrians “by design” and being able to walk safely is a basic human right. Our organization was formed to challenge current city planning strategies that consider walking as “an alternative form of transportation”, not deserving attention and resources dedicated to vehicular traffic.

WalkDenver promotes walking as the most sustainable form of transportation. No resources (other than a pair of shoes) are needed to allow people to travel as pedestrians. Therefore pedestrian impact on the environment is minimal.

Walking is a social activity. People like to be surrounded by other human beings; walking allows for opportunity to “bump into” an old friend, a conversation, an observation, and a participation in activity.

Walking is the most basic, free and easy form of exercise. When integrated into an everyday lifestyle walking can provide enough activity to maintain a healthy weight and reduce risk of diabetes and heart disease. Outdoor activity and human interaction associated with walking contributes to better mental health.

Pedestrians are also the ones that shop, dine and spend money. Pedestrianism is an economic driver. Creating pedestrian oriented districts leads to higher retail revenue and increased commercial activity.

The benefits of walking are numerous and WalkDenver advocates that pedestrians are given priority in public and private infrastructure investments.

There are several elements that contribute to positive pedestrian experience but the most important one is safety. Safety is determined by the quality of infrastructure and amenities. Sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, lighting, way finding, landscaping and street furniture contribute to physical environment that is necessary for perception of safety and comfort. WalkDenver advocates for inclusion of pedestrian safety measures in the city design standards. We monitor that the standards are included in project budgets and implemented. We also ensure that the maintenance standards are enforced.

Pedestrian experience goes beyond safety. Pedestrian destinations, retail stores, coffee shops, active recreation opportunities are necessary to make walking FUN! Vibrant streets, plazas and waterfronts are elements that draw peoples’ activity. Farmers’ markets, art districts, shopping malls are places that are successful because they are pedestrian friendly. WalkDenver advocates for creating pedestrian districts connected by a network of safe streets, bike trails and public transit.

We recognize that Denver is a great city with even bigger potential. Our downtown framed by pockets of local neighborhood activity is an ideal foundation for creating a pedestrian oriented city. Our neighborhoods built on the grid of streets provide a good framework for pedestrian activity. At WalkDenver, we believe that Denver has a potential to become a model walkable, livable and sustainable city that others will follow.

To see more and to sign up our email list go to www.walkdenver.org 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Urban Humanism: exploring concepts of sustainable architecture - RESTORING THE MAIN STREET

For hundreds of years the main street was the center of every town's activity. It was a place where people lived, worked, shopped and conducted business. The typical development pattern included multi-story buildings with residential units on upper levels and commercial spaces on the main floor. People lived close to where they worked. A butcher, a baker, a doctor, and a merchant lived upstairs from their shop and their customers were their neighbors. The street was the center of vibrant activity. People walked and socialized, children played and the community life flourished.

The last half of the century changed the way we live. The industrial age brought with it the separation of life and work. Residential subdivisions become separated from the workplace and entertainment and social life was "zoned" elsewhere. At the same time the popularity and increased affordability of a private car made it possible to drive everywhere. The lack of investments, and in particular, the dismantling of the public transit systems, soon turned a car into a necessity.

The development patterns had to change to accommodate our car-centered lifestyle. And with that the main street had to transform. The historic streets that catered to pedestrians had to follow the car-oriented development patterns. Streets got widened and the sidewalks narrowed, trees cut down to make room for additional lanes of traffic. Multistory mixed use dense development gave way to drive-thru restaurants, banks, pharmacies. Large parking lots in front of the buildings and billboards took over our urban landscape.

The historic main street transformed beyond recognition in last 65 years but current discussions about sustainability and the energy crisis leads us to the need to reduce our dependency on driving and restoring the concept of the main street. Zoning codes are changing to make mixed-use, high-density developments possible again. And communities all over the country demand more walkable neighborhoods.

People want to bring back the pedestrian-oriented development to their communities. They want to be able to walk to a coffee shop to meet with their neighbors and would like to be able to buy milk and organic groceries in their corner store. In my own 'back yard' volunteers discuss streetscape amenities and apply for grants to promote wellness through increased safety and improved pedestrian environment on Federal Blvd.

As our country emerges from The Great Recession the construction industry will have to adapt to new market demands. One by one drive-thru's will transform into storefronts filled with locally owned restaurants, coffee shops and retail. Mixed-income housing on the levels above will provide customers to those businesses. As an architect I see tremendous opportunities as well as responsibilities for our profession. Architects will have an obligation to serve their communities by providing "People Oriented Development" advocacy and design. This may mean that we will have to come out from behind our desks and actively participate in the development process. There is so much potential and work that needs to be done in order to restore the main street in our communities.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Humanism exploring concepts of sustainable architecture


In my last post I provided a board overview of how, in my opinion, the future of architecture and sustainable development will look like. The impact of the Great Recession will cause us to re-think how architecture responds to social and economic needs in addition to employing building materials and technologies that reduce negative impact that development has on the environment.

Today I would like to focus on one of the very first questions asked during the development process – WHERE to build. In the past decades the answer to that question often was – anywhere, as long as the land is cheap. We are now learning that we no longer can afford ‘cheap’. And the cheap that we already have will be very expensive to maintain and fix.

There have been many articles and books written about irresponsible development practices that lead to sprawl. Some call them ‘the biggest misallocation of resources’ others talk about ‘retrofitting suburbia’. One thing we can all agree on is that in the coming decades we will not see much of ‘cul-de-sac’ developments and business parks build on virgin or farm land.

At the same time the demographers are telling us that the trend of people moving to the large cities will continue and possibly accelerate leading to 80% of the population living in urban areas by the year 2050. And so the growth of metropolitan cities is the reality that needs to be addressed. What kind of development will accommodate this growth without continuing the mistakes that we have made in the past?

The only responsible alternative to sprawling developments is urban infill. The benefits of developing within existing urban fabric are numerous and so are the opportunities. There is land that is undeveloped such as public right of ways (that have previously been preserved for possible roadway construction) and old industrial properties as well as underdeveloped residential properties that can accommodate multifamily housing. We can already see eyes of developers turning towards these options.

Environmental benefits of urban infill are obvious and can be summarized in one simple statement – it prevents sprawl. Compact development reduces the need for driving and thus improves air quality. It also promotes the use of public transit even further diminishing the use of private vehicles. It preserves natural land and wildlife habitat as well as natural resources.

There are also social benefits of urban infill. People who live in compact developments are more likely to walk or bike as a daily means of transportation and therefore they are healthier. New development near urban core attracts new population to aging neighborhoods and improves quality of schools and vitality of community life. Compact developments allow for more diversity of housing choices allowing integration of different population groups (seniors, low income families, first time homebuyers, renters and market rate buyers) into vibrant communities. Mixed use urban infill developments often act as catalysts for community life and social interaction.

And as we all deal with impacts the Great Recession has on our lives it is impossible not to mention economic benefits of urban infill. Development within existing urban fabric utilizes existing public infrastructure (roads, water and sewer lines, power lines etc.) as well as public services (trash removal, snow removal, mail delivery etc). When local municipalities struggle to balance their budget keeping infrastructure and services costs down is critical.

Compact development also supports local small businesses. We all want to see local business owners to continue to be the engine of our economy. But corner stores and ‘mom-and-pop’ establishments located in older neighborhoods struggle as the population in these areas ages and decreases. Their business model based on friendly customer service cannot withstand competition of large retailers and chain restaurants that are based on high volume of sales. Urban infill brings in much needed customers for local businesses and thus supports local economy.

In the coming decades continued migration to metropolitan areas and diminishing natural resources will force us to rethink development. We will also have to change the way we think about housing and transit. All those changes will lead to creative and sustainable use of land called urban infill.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Urban Humanism - exploring concepts of sustainable architecture


As an architect I often ponder on the role of architecture in our changing world. With the economic turmoil of current recession I can’t help but wonder what awaits us ‘on the other side’. Given the fact that construction and housing industry suffered the most job loses and the most economic slow down points me in the direction that the build environment we create will change dramatically in the next decades. When looking ahead we hope for sustainable future: sustainable economy, communities and the environment. So how is architecture going to fit in this sustainable system?

First we should discuss the definition of architecture. In past decades the term ‘architecture’ related to buildings and components within them. Architect’s job ended at the building envelope and everything outside the envelope was somebody else’s job. That’s why the buildings are often perceived as stand alone objects with no connection to the space around them.

If we think about ‘green’ architecture in the context of this definition we often refer to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). LEED is a point system designed to mitigate the negative impact a building has on the environment. Points are given for less construction waste, less energy consumption, less harmful chemicals in the materials used etc. But is doing less harm to the environment good enough? What if architecture actually positively contributed to our lifestyle, our communities?

Architecture needs to be redefined to include all forms of human intervention into natural landscape. Buildings are only one form of this intervention; others include roads, sidewalks, power poles, fountains, benches, planters, detention ponds, plazas and everything else we permanently and temporarily install to make modern life possible. Once we consider buildings being a part of a larger system we can then discuss their contribution to the environment they shape.

Human activity is greatly affected by our surroundings. There are places that stimulate economic growth by featuring local businesses and places that foster communities by encouraging human interaction. There are places where it’s fun and safe to walk and people are healthier there as a result. As architects respond to new economic conditions it’s going to be our job to understand the mechanisms of integrating architecture with sustainable lifestyle and to create environments where people thrive.

In my future blog posts I would like to discuss different aspects of how architecture should become a component to sustainable system where we live, work and play. How architecture can contribute to healthy lifestyle, strong local economy and vibrant communities. Some of the subjects I will discuss include:
  • Urban infill
  • Cars and parking and their role in people-friendly environment
  • Architecture as framework for walkable commercial and neighborhood streets
  • Buildings and their functions as pedestrian destinations
  • Architecture as a mechanism for supporting diverse communities
  • Architecture and multi-modal transportation
Please join me next time and feel free to contact me with your comments at gkung@kungarch.com.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Back to the future

For hundreds of years people worked close to where they lived. An owner of a corner store, a barber or a butcher lived upstairs from their business. Every community had a small center with basic retail, a school, a church and doctors office within walking distance from every corner of the neighborhood. People knew their neighbors and exchanged favors to help one another. A streetcar connected neighborhoods and the town center. This lifestyle came to an end with the introduction of privately owned automobile.

In the last six decades the idea of “working and living together” has been replaced with segregating residential developments form commercial zones and from entertainment districts. This separation of uses forced us to travel between different parts of town to fulfill basic daily needs. With wide popularization of privately owned cars and decrease of investments in public transit we soon found ourselves having to drive everywhere. Nowadays, in a typical subdivision, every trip has to be made by car (buying milk, talking children to school, commuting to work.) More and more cars, traffic jams and constant congestion turned this suburban “American dream” in to an “American nightmare”. We are now learning that no matter how many more lanes we add to our highways it’s never enough and the congestion always returns multiplied by additional cars on the road.

We are also realizing how cars changed our neighborhoods and the way we build. In the last six decades our cities have been designed for movement of cars. Accommodations for acceleration and deceleration lanes, multi-lane streets and highways, drive-thru restaurants, banks and pharmacies, strip malls and parking lots are now typical development patterns. What we perceive as a lack of planning and sprawl is in fact, a very deliberate effect of zoning laws.

In this process of car-centered city planning we have managed to “engineer a sense of community out of our lifestyle” and have created an environment where it’s no longer safe to walk. Now we have to pay for gym membership in order to toddle on a treadmill while we watch epidemic of obesity grow every year. We see people become isolated in their homes and cars and we wonder about depression becoming second largest reason for disability absences from work. Children who are chauffeured around everywhere because it is not safe to ride their bikes have too much energy so we medicate them for ADHD… The addiction to mobility has caused significant damage our health and the health of our communities. The problem with cars is no longer only an issue of air pollution, energy crisis or climate change that can be fixed by an invention of the electric car. There are issues of social sustainability and public health that need immediate attention.

As architects and planners look for sustainable solutions to accommodate future growth of our cities we turn to the past and learn from those vibrant, eclectic historic neighborhoods developed before cars took over our lives. Our focus now shifts from designing cities for cars to designing cities for people. The concept of LIVABILITY is gaining more and more supporters.

Livability means pedestrian friendly wide sidewalks and street trees for shading. It means buildings pushed right against the sidewalk to create a welcoming street fa├žade. Shops and restaurants have large windows inviting people to come in and providing safety surveillance of the street. Residential units on upper levels allow people to live close to where they work, shop and play and bring local customers to thriving neighborhood businesses.

Streets are designed to accommodate bikes, buses and cars. Children can safely bike to school and they no longer need their parents to drive them to every soccer game or a play date. Access to public transportation makes it affordable for people of all income levels to be in the community because they don’t have to own a car, so the savings of a car payment can be used towards better housing options. Busses, streetcars or a light rail allow people who cannot drive (teenagers, seniors or disabled) to move about and be a part of community thus significantly improving their lifestyle.

Green city design means learning from the past and building livable communities that significantly reduce the need for driving. Resource-responsible urban lifestyle is the answer to all three aspects of sustainability (social, economic and environmental) and is the key to a good health of individuals and our communities. New technologies (i.e. electric cars) should only supplement our efforts and cannot substitute for holistic good practices.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Urban Humanism

Last week I attended a presentation by a representative from Regional Transportation District on FasTracks. Somebody commented how surprised they were in 2004 to discover that women over 65 voted FOR the tax increase to support construction of the new transit system. The surprise came from the fact that this population group lives on the fixed income and is historically unlikely to support new and progressive project. It was an evening of surprises as I found that comment striking. More on that later…

During last 50 years city planning revolved around cars. Large city blocks allowing for long acceleration and deceleration lanes, multi-lane streets, highways, drive-thru restaurants, banks, pharmacies and lots and lots of parking (4 parking spaces for every car on the road today!). Because of the way zoning codes are written today it is standard procedure for an architect or engineer to start designing a site plan by determining parking requirements. Then we look at setbacks; finally the little space left is used for the building. Little or no consideration is given to pedestrians. Our cities are designed for the cars, not for the people.

In the recent years we came to realization that car-centered city planning leads to catastrophic consequences. I will not get into the discussion of energy crisis or environmental implications. I want to focus on social outcome instead.

For thousands of years people walked or rode their horses. The size of their world was limited by how far they can walk in one day. If they needed information they asked their neighbors. A corner store carried all basic goods and was within walking distance. So were the school, the church and the doctor. A street car would take you to the downtown. There were no gyms and no obesity. There was a lot of neighborhood gossip but no social anxiety or depression. Active children were told to play outside, not medicated for ADHD.

Progressive minds of today talk about new ways to create modern, sustainable developments. New urbanism, new communities… I want to go back to those little old ladies over the age of 65 who voted for FasTracks in 2004. I’m not surprised by their vote at all! They remember the days before cars took over our lifestyle. For them there is nothing new or progressive about public transportation or livable and walk-able communities.

Many cities (including Denver) adopt new kind of zoning codes. The Form Based Codes. Unfortunately the word Form relates to the Building Form. I’m still waiting for yet another generation of codes: Human Form Based Codes. City planning based on human scale and human perception. City planning that considers questions like these:
  • Can a mother with three children safely walk on this sidewalk? (note she only has two hands)
  • Would you let your 8-year-old son ride a bike on this bike trail independently?
  • Can children walk or bike to school in this neighborhood?
  • Can a 65-year-old woman walk or take a local bus to the light rail stop?
  • Where do you get your milk?
  • Can you live in this neighborhood for a week without driving?