November 5, 2009

Duluth's draft Form-Based Codes

Duluth unveiled draft form-based codes (FBC's), intended to apply to specific commercial districts in the city, last week. As far as I can tell, only one other city in Minnesota has adopted FBC's.

Form-based codes are a departure from typical zoning, which largely tells you what you can't do, and focuses more on the use going on inside the building than what the structure looks like, and how it fits in with the neighborhood. FBC's flip this, in many ways, spelling out basically how a building will look and fit into the neighborhood, and focusing less on the specific uses. FBC's can be used for a number of different parts of a community, but are most commonly applied to commercial areas.

Form-Based Codes are not in and of themselves a "good" or "bad" thing, but are a good tool for a community to use to achieve specific goals in specific areas. Their usefulness depends entirely on what specifications are written in to the codes, so it is important to take a good look at any proposed FBC's, and consider how it helps the community achieve it's goals.

I attended the public presentation of the draft FBC's last week, and thought I'd share some comments on the draft.

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September 22, 2009

Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth

As I've written before, Smart Growth and Sustainable Urbanism provide us with tools to protect our water and other natural resources, reduce our carbon footprint, and grow our communities in such ways that promote liveability, local economies, and strong community ties. Another often overlooked fact is that city-dwellers typically emit much less carbon dioxide (as measured through home heating/cooling, electricity use, and transportation) than suburban dwellers. Transportation makes up a big part of this, of course.

Now, those of us living in coastal areas have a new tool to use: the Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities, website at: with a new report, list of available tools and resources, and case studies. Coastal communities are unique in the value and importance of the waterfront, and must balance protecting the resource's natural values, while capitalizing on the value for tourism, industry, recreation, and other uses. This website should give us some help along the shore to balance all these needs, and create thriving, sustainable communities on Lake Superior's coast.

I've heard great things about one of the tools listed, the Coastal Community Planning and Development workshop, offered by NOAA's Coastal Services Center, and I'm looking to host this training during the first 1/2 of 2010. If you're interested, drop me a note.

February 10, 2009

The Chicago Green Alley Handbook

I recently found "The Chicago Green Alley Handbook" , and if you haven't seen it yet, it's worth a look. It's a nice, short and to-the-point document listing the techniques and approaches Chicago is and will use to improve alleys in their city, and also lists a variety of techniques that residents can use on their properties, listing applications, cost ranges, and benefits.

The main focus does seem to be stormwater, but the handbook discusses additional techniques and benefits as well, such as urban heat island effects, energy efficiency, recycling and re-use, and light pollution.

Chicago's recently received some good press about their green alley program, including CNN and others:

January 28, 2009

Forests and Water Quality

(note: This is the unedited and un-shortened version of an article I worked on for the Spring 2008 issue of "Streamline", a newsletter for residents of the Lester-Amity watershed published by the Natural Resources Research Institute; this and other issues are on the Lake Superior Streams website.)

Quick: how many trees are in the Lester-Amity rivers watershed? Give up? Me too, but if the first thing that came in to your head was “a lot!�?, you’re on the right track. Most of the land in the watershed is forested, with trees covering approximately 71% of the Amity Creek watershed’s 10,533 acres and 63% of the Lester River’s 22,773 acres (that’s almost 22,000 acres of forest), and this is clearly the dominant land cover. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good thing for water quality in the creek, too.

Trees play a critical role in protecting and maintaining water quality all around Lake Superior, and do many things that we don’t always recognize. During rainfall, a forest canopy can capture up to 30-50% of a typical rain, and hold it on their leaves or needles until it evaporates. The floor of a forest, with all the undergrowth and decaying leaves, can hold a significant amount of water as well, trapping 3 times more water than a grass lawn can. The roots of trees also help break up the soil (particularly important with the clay soils so common in this area), and this helps water infiltrate down into the ground. During the spring, coniferous forests reduce and delay snowmelt runoff due to the shade their needles provide. All of these things help keep water on the land, and protect the stream from higher runoff volumes, which erode the banks and pull sediment into the creek.

Trees along the banks of the stream play a few other roles, as well. The shade provided by trees to the stream helps keep the water cool for the Brook Trout, which do best when the water temperature is between about 52-61 deg. F, and can’t survive when the water temperatures exceed 75 degrees F. The roots of trees along the banks help prevent erosion as well, keeping the water clean. The trees also directly provide food and habitat to stream organisms as well; leaves falling into the stream are eaten by many invertebrates, and can be the main source of food entering the stream. Trees falling into the stream are also both a source of food (some critters feed on the wood as it decomposes), and create habitat for fish by blocking high flows, creating pools and eddies, and providing cover from predators.

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Sustainable Urbanism

(note: this was originally posted on Feb 11th, 2008, before I started this one. I'm adding it here to get everything in one place)

On Friday at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Washington, DC, I attended a session called “Emerging Thresholds of Sustainable Urbanism? led by Doug Farr, who recently wrote the Book: Sustainable Urbanism (2008), with other smart growth experts from around the country, and chaired the committee that developed the new LEED-ND standard (LEED for Neighborhood Development).

Here’s a few facts shared by him, Lynn Richards from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Smart Growth, and Kaid Benfield from the Natural Resources Defense Council; all had citations, though I didn’t manage to copy down most of them. This is followed by a few additional ideas about what this means, and how Duluth can use this information

¬ We use 37% more energy getting to and from buildings than we use operating the buildings themselves.

¬ Vehicle miles traveled are increasing so fast that planned increases in CAFÉ standards will do little more than slightly slow fuel consumption growth. Reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is critical to reducing carbon output

¬ VMT is directly related to the density of the residential area in which a family lives; the less dense an area, the more miles driven

¬ Increases in housing efficiency are not keeping up with the increases in housing size; so homes are more efficient per square foot, but the square feet are increasing too fast!

¬ A “green? household in a suburban area (green = highly efficient building, hybrid car) still requires more energy for heating, cooling, lighting, and transportation than an urban home without any green features included.

¬ Atlanta Avg = 34 vehicles miles traveled per person per day. In a new smart growth neighborhood in Atlanta, vehicle miles traveled is 8/person/day.

¬ Attached housing (sharing a wall, floor, or ceiling with another unit) can reduce energy needs by up to 50% as compared to detached units, not including reduction in building materials.

¬ Share Cars: recommend 1 per block; can replace 6-7 cars on a standard block.

¬ Density and Design help, but LOCATION is critical: you need walkable access to other destinations.

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