Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting Greener in Charleston

This week I took a day off work to see what was going on with alternative transportation in Charleston. Charleston is the closest link to the coast to us here in Charlotte, so I periodically take a day-trip there to enjoy a little sun, seabreeze and urbanism. It struck me that I never really paid attention on my trips there to the alternative transport situation in Charleston. This Thursday, I took a little more careful look.

Charleston's automobile dependency is reflected in its traffic congestion downtown and consequent difficulty getting around its walkable core. Part of the reason for this is the poor links the peninsula geography provides to the core, meaning car-owning folks living on the isolated urbanized islands and peninsulas have little if any incentive to abandon their vehicles getting to primary destinations around Greater Charleston. This includes travel to and from the historic peninsula. Unfortunately, its historic street fabric, well-connected as it is, just does not have the generous boulevards required to handle the automobile volumes this well-beloved destination produces. As a consequence, cyclists and pedestrians have to jostle with a relentless stream of vehicles around the narrow traffic-clogged spines of the city. You'd think urban form here (much more so than, for example, right-of-way lovin' Savannah) would help spur the mode shift to inch somewhat to alternative modes, but that appears not to be the case so much.

The freeway pipes leading to the urban core may do nothing to discourage the primacy of the auto, but one has to suspect here an under-performing, under-privileged and unappreciated transit system may also be an issue. Suspecting this, I concentrated my exploration of the transit question around the neighborhoods connected by Charleston's busiest bus corridor, the Route 10 corridor, which connects the large population of North Charleston with historic Charleston.

My observations confirmed the under-performance of the bus system.  Dramatically so.  Because my observations also revealed the terrific capacity of the Route 10 corridor to truly amplify the effects of transit performance.  Indeed, I left a little envious of the relative advantages Charleston's urban form and geography has on cities such as mine. The potential of this corridor and others in Charleston to generate a mode-shift to rapid transit is quite impressive. Here are just a few of the things I noted:

  1. There are a great number of existing and underutilized rail rights-of-way running along or parallel the Route 10 route that appear readily available to easily retrofit to commuter and/or light rail use. In a significant stretch of Spruill Avenue, in fact, the right-of-way is directly adjacent to the road and is presently unused (you could tell by the saplings growing in between the rails).
  2. The communities along the Route 10 corridor are relatively well-connected (except in newer areas further north) or are easily connectible (as in isolated complexes such as the former Navy Yards at Noisette). Since rail rights-of-way tend to create some of the greatest divisions between neighborhoods, TOD's located strategically could create new and exciting possibilities for interconnection. Significant locations of aging commercial and warehouse facilities can also benefit from tie-ins to transit related development.
  3. The communities of the corridor are using the Route 10 buses to standing room only capacity and stop areas were crowded...A sure sign that existing demand for transit is simply not being met and could grow significantly with added capacity.
  4. Rivers Avenue has a long stretch with a significant right-of-way in North Charleston (about 200 feet wide), which means it could easily be adapted to a multiway boulevard with dedicated transit lanes.
  5. Pedestrians and cyclists populate the entire corridor, but they are not well accommodated. TOD and transit infrastructure can certainly help improve things. Segmenting the road into multiple travelways for those wide sections of Rivers Avenue, for example, would certainly aid pedestrian crossing, which is a significant challenge at the moment.
  6. Because the Route 10 Corridor parallels the I-26 freeway, and parking/congestion is a clear deficit to automobile transport in historic Charleston, rapid transit would have a great strategic advantage attracting commuters as a viable transportation alternative. Charlestonians, however, need to be aware that the speed and frequency of the service is critical to court commuters with the auto choice, not just convenience. The near interchangeability of the commuting options is one critical factor that has made the light rail option very attractive to folks in my city.
  7. The employment and university/college destinations of North Charleston are very important for commuters arriving the other way, meaning a rapid transit corridor would have commuting demand both ways, which generates a clear advantage for the effectiveness of the transit system. A well-placed end of line in Charleston near Charleston Southern University, the large medical park, and the interchange with I-26 would not just be a commuting entry to the transit system but an important destination point as well. In effect, the Route 10 corridor connects two important destination districts, Historic Charleston and one of North Charleston’s most dynamic employment districts, one which has tremendous capacity for future growth.

In a lot of ways, the above points remind me of the critical advantages of the South Corridor here in Charlotte, the first light rail development corridor in the Carolinas. The South Corridor is also a retrofit of an underutilized rail right-of-way running parallel to an interstate freeway that connects a thriving suburb with the core city. What's great about the South Corridor is that it attracts ridership from a wide demographic base, including automobile commuters. Charleston’s recent Green Plan highlighted Charlotte's South Corridor as an aspirational transportation solution for Charleston, particularly for that reason.

My word to Charlestonians: we're flattered for the profile, but aim for what is great about Charleston. It seems that here in the South aspiring communities tend to pay way too much focus on enhanced transit solutions as an amenity choice (and hence an expendable or political choice) and not transit as an advantage choice (as an investment tool to capture and unplug latent benefits seeded in the city and currently being frustrated). Don’t just pay homage to a coveted amenity. Think first about why, indeed, you really need it and - especially! - the special way that you need it.

Instead, aside from mentioning the propensity of the peninsula to favor more compact and dense development forms, Charleston’s Green Plan just seems oblivious to many of these pertinent points of geographic advantage. Transportation talk should always start with discussion of urban form and geography. Nowhere does the Green Plan even seek to posit Charleston's unique metropolitan geography as a unique attribute to interrogate and build upon. There's a reason Charleston produces 40% of carbon emissions through transportation.  But, in fact, such a unique geography may just be Charleston's greatest asset in a solution.  The peninsula geography has myriad virtues that would begin to inform the process of thinking about what “sustainability” means for Charleston and its region. Thinking about the peninsulas and islands would begin to craft unique solutions bearing on the Green Plan's aspirations. A sustainability plan for Charleston should not just look like a sustainability plan that could have been crafted anywhere.

As an outside observer from Charlotte, let me point out that, even if I suspect the transit-related development opportunities are more constrained in Charleston, in some ways, Charleston's unique geography gives it a holistic advantage that Charlotte simply can't match. Please don’t miss this opportunity, Charlestonians! I would begin by studying carefully some of the observations and recommendations transit consultant Jarrett Walker outlines in his discussions of peninsula geography and chokepoints (here and here). Those strongly delineated peninsula areas, which will continue to reinforce compact and dense infill development in the future, and all those chokepoints between the peninsulas and islands, represent a unique edge for transit in Charleston. But this is if, and only if, transit is treated as a mode of primary choice, a mode that may indeed demand exclusive lane dedication in your constrained geography. Transit really stands a chance in your peninsula city, as in Seattle, Vancouver and the Big Apple, to become a mode of choice, not just forever play second (and neglected) fiddle!

...And, as a regular visitor to Charleston, I would certainly enjoy Charleston's charms better with improved opportunities to walk and bike the historic core. Of all the commitments the Green Plan makes, this one is especially relevant to me. A little more right-of-way dedicated to these needs and/or a little less congestion to go with it sure would make my experience of Charleston that much richer. Even if I'm probably not going to use transit services frequently during my visits, at least I would appreciate streets that are a little more accommodating to my tourist needs because of enhanced transit effects. Choice transit does indeed benefit both locals and guests.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

LEED-ND - urban design as architecture?

Inukshuk, originally uploaded by tom.glanz.

I would be returning now my beloved blog theme (of late), Savannah, were it not for the fact that I've lately been been absorbed with the task of evaluating a facility design for possible LEED-NC (2009 v. 3) certification. I find the LEED assessment process an intellectually rewarding and informative experience for much of the same reasons I enjoy thinking about Savannah and researching timely issues of development, transit, and urban design in the blogosphere.

What is interesting about LEED-NC to me is the way it opens up the architectural task of designing buildings to the greater task of design for the user and his/her community. The surrounding context of design, both local and global, comes into the primary purview of the architect's design enterprise. LEED for New Construction and Major Renovations, in effect, repositions the role of the architect as the role of the urban designer. LEED-NC tells you that location matters. That site decisions matter. Suddenly, the community and its public realm, with their exorbitant diversity and interconnection, become entities to think about with bearing on the design work.

Of course, an architect worth his salt out there will stamp his feet and huffily tell you that good architectural practice always does address the purview of urban design concerns and matters and more. Urban designers would just as well spare us the pretense and worry themselves more with becoming good "architects". Urban design is just hip at the moment, because the trend-setters suddenly love that word "urban", but it not just a weightless distinction, especially since planners, architects and landscape architects can seemingly claim the role at will?

Well, I think urban designers do matter, regardless what they call themselves. (Of course, everyone's definition of "urban design" is probably more expansive and generous than it needs to be.) First of all, urban design as a special field of focus and professional specialization matters because places like Savannah exist. Some designers actually did dream up Savannah and Philadelphia. Urban design mattered in the inception of those communities.  We say not just "Paris" but "Haussmann's Paris", not just "DC" but "L'Enfant's DC", for a reason.  But, of course, urban design continues to matter even after the inception and the broad-broad stroke.  It matters in how communities continue to adapt their environment incrementally during changing circumstances, often at the behest of their changing self-identities. The process of change is why you need planners, but the physical fact of change is why you need a subset of architects and planners that specialize in urban design.  In spite of how invisible or unappreciated their "small strokes" might be, you simply need people who have a professional focus on design of the public realm and who work in that area of environment where the public is the primary client and where design decisions are shaped by the diversity of actors who have a stake in the public realm.  When architects do get public commissions their primary role switches to urban design.  The urban designer is the architect who never stops thinking about the city.  The commission is just a component of that broader enterprise of shaping the public realm in a manner that represents more than the sum of its constituent parts.  This to me has always been what distinguishes the work of good architects: the city is their true client and commission.  People like Gehry, Richard Meier and Rem do not have just the building in focus.  Maybe they do deserve to be in the pantheon of architects we call "starchitects".  Whether by luck, talent or both, they obtain their distinction through what I call "urban design".  Depending on your critical stance that may be unfortunate or not, but the critique itself must also engage a theory of "urban design".  Urban design is an interpretive stance, more so than architecture, because it is the will of the public that it is interpreting, and for that, it deserves to be critiqued.  It deserves to be a field of professional endeavor.

Of course, my particular stance is that urban design is "messy".  Often, urban design happens in the vacuum, without anyone driving a vision.  But if the best urban design is ad hoc, unplanned and after the fact, that is because communities are adaptive and resourceful enough to practice urban design.  Pedestrians and their needs enact a kind of low level urban design, day by day, much as bees create hives.   True, part of urban design is knowing when to step out of the way, and for that you need more robust theory and professionalism...more thinking and sharpening (Rem style), not less.  Urban designers wield a dainty scalpel.  That scalpel can matter and it cannot, it can succeed and it can fail.

Two kinds of urban design are present in the image above.  One in the background and one in the foreground.  What process led to either, who can really say?  Whatever professions were involved, the result was urban design.  However, some things can be said.  The one in the background, Vancouver's Olympic Village, was shaped by the process of applying urban design criteria clambering to earn the project as many LEED-ND pilot program points as possible.  Here is a work of master planners, architects no doubt, who not only embraced the role of the "urban designer", but, in fact, applied urban design prerogatives much like builders do placing together the elements of a building.  The LEED-ND pilot program criteria was the driver and the straight-jacket that they had to tectonically coordinate with their client's even more demanding program.  Its design was shaped by the need to stack the right stone on the right stone to find a new sweet spot...rising and falling they went together until a strikingly good balance was found.  If LEED-NC brought architects back to urban design, LEED-ND brought urban designers back to architecture.

...And my, oh my, what a great development this is for the trajectory of urban designers everywhere.

In a day where architecture as a field is becoming less relevant, as BIM technicians replace practicioners with AIA stamps (in paycheck if not in effect), here is one bright note where we can smile at the future of architecture.  The introduction of LEED-ND is one place where architecture matters as a profession.  And where it meets urban design.