New EPA Tool for Sustainable Urban Development

| 62 Comments
At the White House Urban Affairs sustainable communities forum, Administrator Jackson unveiled a new EPA tool to help local governments identify specific zoning code and land use ordinance fixes that would improve access to affordable housing, provide additional low-cost transportation options, preserve community character, and protect the local environment. This tool is available at http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/essential_fixes.htm.

The EPA tool include 11 "essential fixes "

1. Allow or require mixed-use zones
2. Use urban dimensions in urban places
3. Rein in and reform the use of planned unit developments (PUDs)
4. Fix parking requirements
5. Increase density and intensity in town and city centers
6. Modernize street standards
7. Enact standards that foster walkable places
8. Designate and support preferred growth areas and development sites
9. Manage stormwater with green infrastructure
10. Adopt smart annexation policies
11. Encourage appropriate development densities on the edge

Please select at least one of the "essential fixes" and elaborate on how they can help us reach the heart of the sustainability prism and which type of conflicts the "fix(es)" may mitigate.  Please also point out caveats of your selected "fix(es)". 

62 Comments

The essential fix that describes enacting standards that foster walkable places would obviously aid the environmental imperative of the sustainability prism. Allowing people to accomplish more of their daily tasks on foot would reduce pressure on the physical environment. The fix might also assist the social imperative if the resources (e.g. housing, grocery, medical) located within walking distance are useful to individuals. If the area is walkable but there are only fast food restaurants and liquor stores, the fix will not support the sustainability prism’s social imperative. The fix also has the potential to further the institutional imperative. More people living closer together, seeing each other in the walkable place may create a better sense of place and encourage participation (especially when it affects their neighborhood). I’m not quite sure how the fix would help or harm the economic imperative of the sustainability prism. It seems like it would have little effect on satisfying need for material welfare.

I guess I have an issue with the idea of a densified and intensified urban center contributing to the livability of a community. It may not be difficult to acknowledge the positive arguments behind this idea, including the protection of green space and the proliferation of a pedestrian friendly environment. However, increased stresses on the immediate environment and transportation account for only a few of the problems I visualize. I feel that this densification is what leads to the continuous sprawl of American metropolitan areas in the first place. Nevertheless, as long as this sort of development is done with appropriate planning, I will not have much of a problem.

Fix # 9: Managing stormwater with green infrastructure

Managing stormwater with green infrastructure (e.g. urban tree canopy, green roofs, rain gardens, etc.) directly addresses the environmental component of the sustainability prism. By using environmental and ecosystem services in place of grey infrastructure and engineering the urban environment is remediated/enhanced at a lesser cost in the long term.
The other aspects of the sustainability prism are also addressed by fix # 9, though less directly. By using the lower cost (commonly lower cost in the long-term) "green" alternatives to traditional stormwater management the economic aspect of urban sustainability are promoted--both by reducing public costs and by creating urban spaces that are more aesthetically pleasing, thereby attracting businesses and their customers. Creating enjoyable spaces also promotes social well-being and health (great research by Frances Kuo from U of IL: http://lhhl.illinois.edu/).

Using green infrastructure, when possible, promotes the EPA's desires to improve community character and protect the local environment. Unfortunately, there are conflicts between green infrastructure and cities, and also reasons that prevent green infrastructure from being used to its full capacity. A significant problem that needs to be overcome before green infrastructure will start having a greater influence on reaching sustainability is a paradigm shift. The minds of most municipal public works departments have a hard time conceiving of management plans for green infrastructure. Second, even if there was sufficient ideological support for green infrastructure there are major financial barriers (high front-end costs) to switching over the system of operation. Third, successful blending of "grey" and "green" infrastructure still seems to require certain technology achievements--blending the existing with the new is tough because of physical constraints and organizational. For example, implementing an urban forest canopy plan to reduce stormwater runoff and peak flows would face challenges of finding places amidst the buildings and streets to plant trees (and ensure that they will survive), re-writing ordinances, and training personnel for the new approach...

The difficulty is not implementing one or a few of the fixes, but implementing them in a way that they do not counteract the others and can be implemented harmoniously.

The larger the number of proposed EPA fixes which can be cross-pollinated, the more likely they will be to help us reach the interior of the prism and be cost-effective to implement. Fix #9, regarding stormwater reduction, interfaces with increasing housing density through reducing driveway widths, parking space widths and grouping of parking- thereby reducing impervious pavement which yields greater rain water percolation. The public space between sidewalks and streets, when handled as swales to capture water and planted with native perennials can reduce consumption of fertilizer and gasoline, while softening denser housing and providing a band of plants suitable for birds and butterflies (just as a side bonus). The green corridors, recommended in more than one "Fix", provide environmental protection for water and other resouces, a pressure valve for denser housing and as the article says, yield "More distinctive communities".

Starting early in the process, in this case a project stormwater review, is going to be key. Changing regulations to allow underground cisterns (what about liability?) might be one obstacle in a narrow view of the stormwater volume fix.

The weak areas in several of the fixes are the ideas that developers will be incentivized by an accelerated approval process (paperwork delays were one of reasons the PUD's became popular) or that somehow compliance with the newly revised zoning will be verified -when building inspectors are down to one or two individuals trying to cover entire suburban areas right now, not likely. Penalties for higher stormwater emission or tax discounts for the use of the recommended sustainability fixes could work, as they affect the pocketbook of builders and building owners.

8. Designate and support preferred growth areas and development sites

This "essential fix" can potentially help the economy aspect of the sustainability prism. The article posted above explains the important of building in areas that already have an existing infrastructure. Building in preferred growth areas can financially help both the existing infrastructure, as well as the new development. Reducing transportation costs is just one example of this. Helping to reduce outward growth can also help reduce environmental degradation in the long run.

The mixed-use development fix has the potential of meeting all four aspects of the sustainability prism. There is a reason why this "fix" was listed first...moving to mixed-use development would integrate many of the other "fixes" inherently, such as increasing density and intensity in centers, eliminating some parking issues, upgrading street standards, and potentially attracting development in preferred growth area. Mixed-uses, depending how comprehensive the modifications and changes are, and whether the location of which is in relation to other areas that will naturally encourage the mixed-use areas, can provide an exciting new business and economic opportunity. Environmentally, it can reduce emissions due to transportation, mixed-use requirements cut back on sprawling land use due to density, and can encourage residential movement to existing dense and city centers. Livability-wise, mixed use areas provide a safe and secure social system, an interesting and enjoyable environment, as well as greater accessibility to amenities. Achieving equity is not necessarily inherent in mixed-use development. Equity may be sacrificed for greater economic gains or for enhancing livability for a certain demographic.

Fix parking requirements (Eliminate minimum parking standards or use shared parking between two businesses).

Promotion of these policies would lead to less land used for parking as the majority of parking spaces at retail destinations are not used most of the time. Shared parking would promote efficient use of parking spaces for businesses that have different customer peaks (i.e. office buildings and churches). Hopefully, this could lead to changing the automobile-centered culture. There are also many positive sustainability effects resulting from these policies. These include:

• The lack of abundant free parking would lead to less driving which has positive environmental effects on greenhouse gas emissions.
• Parking lots are often derided as some of the ugliest urban places. Limiting these would make a community more livable and appealing for workers.
• Less consumption of land (greenfields) and especially less runoff which would have positive effects of groundwater pollution.
• Right-sized parking would lead to cheaper development of retail and office buildings. Avoiding paying $20,000 for spaces that are unlikely to be used is advantageous for a developer.

The difficulty with fixing parking standards is determining what is the “right” amount of parking. Too little parking and the economics of retail and office buildings suffers as customers cannot easily reach their destinations. Too much parking has the negative externalities already mentioned.

#8. Designate and support preferred growth areas and development sites

Directing growth to areas with infrastructure that has the capacity to handle increase density would reduce sprawl, increase transit ridership, improve efficiency of existing infrastructure, etc. Some areas or sites in a city may be ripe for a particular type of development based on the individual specifics. Instead of building large office parks or large tracts of housing on the fringe, sites in the city requiring little to no infrastructure improvement is more economically efficient. For example, the Central Corridor will be a $1 billion dollar investment in University Ave connecting the two downtowns. It would be foolish to not intensify development along this corridor to get the biggest bang for the buck. Since the line will run through developed areas of the two central cities, infrastructure such as new roads and sewer are already in place. Amenities also exist like a grocery store, retail and other services to the neighborhood, deterring big box or over-development of services. Directing dense development along the line will increase the population and tax base, reduce congestion and driving and make city living more appealing.

A limitation to this fix lies within the funding system for transit, both federal, state and local. Yes, there are areas and sites without ample transit where directing development is appropriate. However, part of the sustainability prism is to reduce driving and congestion and increase the overall quality of life. Transit drives intense development in cities. Take again the Central Corridor for instance. The line has been in the planning stages for years. With the actual construction of the line coming (hopefully) next year, many developers, city officials and stake holders in the community are making necessary preparations. Utilities are being relocated, developers are purchasing land for redevelopment, and city officials are directing funds to improve the streetscape and other related infrastructure. All of this preparatory work could be at somewhat of a waste if funding sources for the line dry up. The federal government could decide to reduce or eliminate funds for transit development. Also, the state could set aside money for this type of project, but the governor or house could veto the bill sending funds elsewhere. These actions could halt the development of a transit investment, limiting growth potential in certain areas and specific sites.

Albeit somewhat general and vague, I would promote the adoption of essential fix number 7. Like Sarah, I agree that enacting standards that foster walkable places would help us make steps towards plunging into the depths of the sustainability prism. Enacting standards that allow more walkable places would address the environmental corner of the prism by encouraging people to use transportation that does not generate greenhouse gases further compounding the problem of global warming and climate change. In addition, by encouraging walking, it is likely that fewer roads will be constructed, resulting in fewer paved surfaces. With a decline in the roads built, the environmental facet of the prism will be addressed once more the less paved surfaces will positively impact the surface and groundwater conditions. Enacting walkable standards will likely acknowledge the economic corner of the sustainability prism by promoting development that has walkable aspects. Commercial and residential developments with walkable standards will likely strengthen the economy by making commuting to errands and work more convenient and efficient. Walkable environments promote equity by supporting the most "equitable" form of transportation, walking. Although some people do not have the ability to walk, walkable environments have the capacity to be accessible to those using wheelchairs or other transportation devices. As a result, enacting standards for walkable environments will lead to a more livable America.

#6 Modernize Street Standards

First I am very impressed that street standards was one of the top ten items and i think is very important to the future of sustainability and does belong in the list of essential fixes. Streets are typically a very high cost and impervious surface and are often over planned and over used because one has few alternatives. New technologies do exist to make streets more permeable but have not proven to be effective long term or cost effective. Reducing street width standards and impervious materials included in street composition could go along way for many environmental impacts starting with reduced runoff and albedo effect.

Reducing street requirements will be a good step in reducing the individuals reliance on the personal automobile. For instance parking spots in front of retail only really meet a development standard but do not guarantee that amount of customers, paved parking requirements are overdone in many cases. Green streets, complete streets, and pedestrian oriented environments are all viable solutions to the massive over paving we see time and time again.

Allow or require mix used zoning in areas previously zoned for housing development-

Due to the aging population of baby-boomers in the suburbs- zoning should change to allow some mix-use development in areas that are previously zoned for suburban development. This will allow baby boomers to age in place and provide walkable development. This idea fits into the sustainability matrix. Equity; incorporating mix-use into a community allows people to age in place- and keep the affordability of their current home and potentially create transportation options. Economy; mix-use will add to the tax base. Mix-use is environmentally friendly because it allows for walkabilty and people don't have to drive great distances to stores. Mix-use also enhances livability because people are more likely to walk and to create local social connections in their community.

MODERNIZE STREET STANDARDS

I think focusing on streets shows an interesting progression in the though process of those planners. Until recently, the focus has been on traffic capacity and aesthetics. There has also been a strong economic focus. According to the EPA, the character of streets can discourage or encourage redevelopment, hasten or reverse urban flight, and add or subtract value from abutting property.
As we've become more environmentally aware and now better understand water pollution, a strong focus has been on reducing impervious surfaces. While still accommodating bike, foot, and vehicle traffic, planners are looking for ways to reduce the amount of surface streets cover.

A second issue regarding street design focuses on connectivity at the macro level. Historically, cities have focuses on one street at a time, creating a piecework of projects. This has resulted in poorly connected networks of street, creating overcrowded arterials, longer commute times, and less walkability.

Solutions to these problems include creating "complete" streets that focus on accommodating all forms of transportation, narrow local streets, and green streets that incorporate landscaping and trees to help mitigate the environmental impact.

I took a look at fix 7 and had a similar response to fellow students in that the wording was rather vague however the intention is inline with sustainable development practices. With that said I believe that the "park once" strategy is well grounded in the reality of our automobile-based culture and within the scope of a tangible fix. I believe this expected benefit would greatly improve the walkability and visual experience of selected pedestrian areas. The challenge of implementing changes to gain this benefit would be to enact additional elements of the smart growth fixes to create dynamic mixed use zones that are proportionate/comfortable urban spaces in which people want to walk within. Such a fix would address the sustainability prism by encouraging people to leave their car behind and support their local economy.

#11. Encourage appropriate development densities on the edge

Encouraging higher density development can help reach the center of the sustainability prism by
This low-density development has been one of the fastest growing in the US, mostly due to the ease developers have found in acquiring and developing this land in rural areas. While these areas look to preserve their rural nature, without a plan for appropriate development densities, this unsustainable urban sprawl will continue. By creating a few roadblocks for developers and giving planners in rural areas the tools to develop on the edge, we can get away from cookie-cutter developments that take away from the rural nature of these areas and are much more expensive to maintain with septic systems and increased amounts of paved roads. It will be difficult to preserve the rural nature on the edge in face of the free market that seeks to develop uniform housing in cul-de-sacs and everyone can live on their own 1-5 acres.


"Fix parking requirements" I think this is indeed a very outmoded requirement that hasn't changed much from the 1960s. America's lifestyle patterns have changed significantly and many now are willing to choose alternatives to get places. While many would like to continue pulling right up to their favorite suburban strip, we should recognize that urban areas have unique preferences. Thus we cannot uniformly apply the same parking standard everywhere anymore. Urban areas are current hampered by the need to provide minimum parking requirements in tight spaces. Fixing them could say switch to a "minimum distance of parking spaces" instead of actual frontage. Thus we can encourage more walking. Similarly we should perhaps look at how parking and transit can be integrated so that people can spend more time out of their car and improve congestion toward the core.

I think that fix number 2 (Use urban dimensions in urban places) is one of the more critical recommendations. This gets at the heart of the sustainability pyramid by scaling uses to make the most efficient use of land in developed areas. The recommendation stipulates that this should be done with an eye toward preserving green space in undeveloped areas as well as encouraging new development that is transit oriented. To this end, the recommendation suggests that cities employ form based zoning or at least zoning requirements that allow for greater densities through more efficient use of parcels. I think a key point is that, by rescaling future development, we can increase affordability by creating smaller houses on smaller lots as well as maximizing unit count in multi-family developments. As this guideline points out, this approach can be used to redevelop urban neighborhoods in a way that creates smaller lot sizes. This can pave the way for in-fill development that is still single family but increases dwelling unit count on each block, increasing affordability and sustainability at the same time through increased housing supply.

Fix number one is allow or require mixed-use zones. Such zones impact all parts of the sustainability prism. The environmental sustainability is addressed by diminishing the amount of land needed for development. If multiple uses can be created within a shared space, that increases the incentive to build buildings that serve multiple uses instead of having to separate them across the landscape.

In turn, requiring mixed uses increases the social sustainability. It means that people of modest means can get to community resources and jobs more easily, without needing the use of cars or other means that are outside of the reach of many lower-income individuals. It also helps encourage density, which in turn aids in the production of affordable housing to serve the needs of the full range of community members.

Finally, encouraging a mix of uses serves everyone in the community more economically, by reducing the need for public infrastructure to serve uses that are artificially separated due to a zoning code.

3. Reign in PUD's

The relatively loose restrictions to most Planned Unit Developments allow developers to skirt the standard zoning procedures. Because of this, many environmental standards become minimally enforced, and the projects tend to not blend into the surrounding area very well. It is necessary that the use of PUD's is limited through increased standards required of them, or eliminating their use entirely.

Communities can add flexibility int their zoning ordinance, without allowing the free-reign that PUDs have traditionally enjoyed. One way is through the use of overlay districts that have been identified as good areas for less traditional neighborhoods through the comprehensive planning process. Another way is through a form-based zoning code that allows for multiple uses as long as they adhere to appropriate design standards. The environmental review as well as other types of development review become more relevant in these strategies. Developers can still enjoy flexibility, but do so while reaching minimum standards set by the community. Overall community character is, in turn, enhanced with the appearance of some semblance of planning.

#4.
I always believe that Minimum Parking Requirement is a big psychological promoter of auto-oriented society and also it induces citizens to make most of their trips on car.Though I am not sure, it seems to me that in all the commercial areas parking space equals the constructed space. This is simply squandering of land. I feel that most of the recommendations made in the tool are very focussed and do a great deal in reducing the dedication open land for parking, like lowering parking supply minimum and issuing credits for shared parking. These, surely, contribute in getting closer to the center of "prism of sustainability".

But at the same time I feel its recommendation for "diagonal parking" on streets may not be very pragmatic, as that might consume lot of street space and might create congestion in the blocks with bus stops. This recommendation might also require modifying the street geometry. Besides, one of the suggestion could have been "Capping the Minimum Parking Requirement" also.

11. Encourage appropriate development densities on the edge -
This tool addresses the frontline of the majority of new development in the urban landscape - exurbs. Why this issue is not frequently addressed nor enforced is a product of the culture that has developed in rural edge areas - the priority of large landowners' rights. With the western US leading the way, this inherent right appropriated by very powerful individuals veers away from the three "bases" of the sustainability pyramid (economy, equity, and environment) and focuses on the "liveability" of a select few. As our environmental resources become degraded through wanton leapfrog development and unsustainable infrastructure, better coordination is needed amongst regional, county and state agencies as well as conscientious developers to engender development that strikes the balance between a pastoral, quiet and private lifestyle and that of efficient, non-invasive, and equitable development. The biggest hurdle towards such implementation is the permeated culture of land-rights and ownership trumping any responsibility to develop in ways that account for the impacts imposed upon surrounding and future inhabitants of the urban fringe.

Fix number 10, “Adopt smart annexation policies”, is aimed at reducing the need for cities to mindlessly reach out and grab land before a neighboring municipality does. The purpose, typically, is simply to fuel growth and build the tax base. Ironically, this attempt often does the exact opposite. Costs of new growth in the annexed areas (providing streets, sewers, police and fire protection, etc) in many cases far outweighs the increased tax revenue provided by new residents.

By requiring cities to deeply analyze how annexation will change their bottom line, and to reduce annexation competition through regional planning and cooperative agreements amongst “competing” cities, cites can come out ahead. Ensuring that annexation only occurs in small manageable pieces in a non-speculative environment, cities reduce costs and suburban sprawl and its many actual and hidden costs. The major caveat when trying to implement smart annexation is it requires cooperation amongst those “competing” cities which may not be realistic. Furthermore, when analyzing the cost of new annexation, there are thousands of ways to work the numbers to reach the desired conclusion of whoever is in charge at the moment.

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This page contains a single entry by yingling published on October 27, 2009 12:27 PM.

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