Monday, April 16, 2012

Charlotte trails nation in walkability has been running a wonderfully written series about pedestrians, but in the No. 3 installment, about the website, the article has a list of cities and neighborhoods deemed "most walkable" and "least walkable" according to the Walk Score formula. New York ranked most walkable. Charlotte wasn't least walkable that honor (?) went to Jacksonville, Fla. But the Queen City was the next-to-last.

I've written much about the need for more walkable neighborhoods and about more lights, crossings, sidewalks and just as important destinations within walking distance. And, as Tom Vanderbilt's article makes clear, part of Walk Score's value is that it bothers to quantify something that few other metrics do, and it coughs out an easily understood score, which makes comparisons easy. However,  it is not perfect.

Because of the flaws in the way it's done, the Walk Score also makes comparisons suspect. For instance, it deems the Cherry neighborhood the most walkable in Charlotte. Um, why?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Remember that streetcar project?

The much-debated Charlotte streetcar project is due to begin construction in December or January, City Engineer Jeb Blackwell tells me. He said property acquisition has begun already. Utility line work is probably the first thing you'll see happening.

This isn't the full Beatties Ford Road-uptown-Central Avenue streetcar route that's part of the Charlotte Area Transit System's 2030 transit plan. This is a 1.5-mile segment between Presbyterian Hospital and the Charlotte Transportation Center at East Trade Street at the Lynx light rail tracks.

The segment is being paid for with a $25 million federal grant and $12 million in city funds that were allocated in 2010. None of the city money came from operating funds (the kind that pays the salaries of police officers, for instance).

Those tracks you see along Elizabeth Avenue were installed several years ago, during a street improvement project that tore up the street for months. The city decided to go ahead and put in the tracks so it wouldn't have to tear up that part of the street again if/when the streetcar project got going. Then the federal grant came through.

A chaotic map hints at many meanings of 'urban region'

The recent news that the Charlotte "urbanized area" was No. 1 in rate of population growth 2000-2010 among U.S. urbanized areas of 1 million or more brought some local chest-thumping and in some quarters a bit of head-scratching. After all, last year, the Census Bureau told us the Charlotte metropolitan area was No. 4 in rate of growth over the same period. What gives?

The answer is that it all depends on how you define the urban region.  The Census Bureau's six-county Metropolitan Statistical Area is a whole other territory from the "urbanized area." Neither is what many would consider the greater Charlotte metro region. The Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord MSA, for example, includes Anson County but not Lincoln, Iredell, Rowan or Stanly counties. The Census Bureau's "Charlotte N.C.-S.C. urbanized area," by contrast, doesn't even include Gastonia and Concord.

My colleagues at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute include some geographers and map lovers (a.k.a. map geeks) and we decided to take a look at all the different areas that are considered the "Charlotte region."  Here's a link to that article. It includes a large, easier-to-read map of multiple "regions," including the MSA, the urbanized area, the MPOs, and more. The word that comes to mind is "chaos."

Transportation planning in particular, is a crazy quilt of metropolitan regions, known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations. I've written before about that particular nuttiness.

Over at, Wendell Cox calculated the density (population per square mile) of those Census Bureau "urbanized areas."  It turns out Charlotte's had the lowest density of all 41 major urban areas.  Next-least dense was – wait for it – Charlotte's fellow sprawling Sun Belt metro, Atlanta.

So if you figure that urban density is is one way to characterize an area as "urban," then maybe Charlotte's "urbanized area" is the fastest-growing but least "urban."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why planners need resilience

In the 21st century planners across America will have to confront changes never seen before, and innovation will be essential. So will resilience. The national president of the American Planning Association on Thursday recounted for a symposium of planners, architects and developers some of the huge changes ahead, not just nationally but in North Carolina.

Mitchell Silver, planning director for the city of Raleigh, also heads the APA this year and in recent months has been visiting places all over the country. Amid many demographic changes, he said, people don't even agree on what the term "urban" means.
To the Census Bureau, "urban" includes the suburbs, and suburban fringe areas. "For some people the term 'urban' is a popular culture term; it has nothing to do with geography," he said. At one conference in another state, he recounted, a man said to him, "If you're going to talk about 'urban' let me know and I'm going to leave."

But in North Carolina, the state's five top urban areas (Charlotte, Greensboro, the Triangle, Triad and the Virginia Beach metro area) hold 70 percent of the state's population, 75 percent of its jobs and produce 83 percent of the state's GDP.

At the same time, across the nation, 25 percent of all counties have lost population. He showed a map of North Carolina; 2000-2010 seven N.C. counties lost population. "We have to figure out how cities, suburbs and rural areas grow – together," he said.

Mitchell spoke at a symposium Thursday, "Resilient communities, innovation for change," sponsored by the UNC Charlotte Master of Urban Design program, the university's Belk College of Business Master of Science in Real Estate program, and the nonprofit ULI Charlotte.

Huge changes on the horizon that Silver pinpointed:

"The silver tsunami": "By 2030, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65." By 2025 the number of single-person households in the U.S. will equal the number of family households. "By 2030 it'll be a clear majority," he said. That, alone, is a game-changer for communities and how they plan.
For example, he said, the elderly often have to give up driving. Will they be able to get around via public transit? In three years, he said, in metro Atlanta projections show that 90 percent of seniors will live in neighborhoods with poor access to transportation options. Among midsize metros, Raleigh is No. 5 on that list of transportation access for the elderly.

The browning of America: By 2042 no race will be the majority in America – for the first time in U.S. history. Silver showed a time-lapse slide that showed the growing number of N.C. counties where the proportion of the non-white population was rising.

Generations X-Y-Z: By 2009, 41 percent of children born in the U.S. were born to unwed mothers. For a variety of reasons, marriage is no longer the automatic choice for parenthood. And for  Gen Y, Silver said,  “Place matters, not job.”

"People want the experience of place," he said. "Because place matters."

Finally, he made a pitch for planning based on economics. "Strategic planning adds value," he said. His examples (with a tip of the hat to Asheville's Joe Minnicozi, who first ran these types of numbers):
– In Raleigh it takes 600 single-family homes in a 150-acre subdivision to equal the tax value of the Wells Fargo Capital Center, on 1.2 acres in downtown Raleigh.
– A highrise in downtown Asheville on three acres pays off its public infrastructure investment in three years. The return on civic infrastructure investment is 35 percent.
– Also in Asheville, a suburban multifamily complex on 30 acres pays off its public infrastructure investment in 42 years. The return on investment is 2 percent.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Urban design takes stage Thursday

Thursday I'll be live-blogging from the UNC Charlotte urban design symposium a first for the School of Architecture's Master of Urban Design program. Lead-off speaker at 8 a.m. will be Mitchell Silver, Raleigh planning director and national president of the American Planning Association.

Then comes a panel of mostly local experts: Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who in private life is a vice president at the nonprofit housing group Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership;  Charlotte architect and planner Terry Shook of Shook Kelley (click here to read his recent remarks on Gastonia, New York and Jane Jacobs); Charlotte developer Clay Grubb; UNCC's Deborah Ryan, an assistant professor in the school of architecture, and Nathan Taft, director of acquisitions for the Jonathan Rose Companies.

The final keynote at 10:45 a.m. will be from Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh.
Attendees must register through the Urban Land Institute chapter in Charlotte: