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Does Northeast Ohio need a "recovering engineers" club?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/01/15 @ 11:15am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

There are a lot of professed “recovering traffic engineers” at this year’s Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) happening in Dallas. It’s a nice bit of self-deflection because this is a safe zone for engineers and developers to profess full throated support for “building places people love” as the CNU tag line goes.

West Palm before<br />A derelict building before West Palm Beach started reimagining its streets and places.West Palm after<br />The same place today is a vibrant, public placeRecovering engineers eye exam<br />Ian Lockwood developed this chart to check engineers speak and community values.

Ian Lockwood is perhaps one of the best known “recovering engineers.” He spoke to a group of Streetsbloggers about his work as Planning Director of West Palm Beach where he helped turn around a derelict downtown—it was the setting for the cable TV series Crack Town, U.S.A.—into one of the most successful examples of a place people love to live in and visit.

It takes leadership, advises Lockwood, who enlisted another recovering engineer, Dan Burden, to do one of the nation’s first road diets on the Dixie Highway where it blew through town.

“We had a mayor who came back from CNU,” he recounts. “She agreed to change the language we use. So you could no longer say Level of Service. If an engineer working with the city violated that code, I could say, ‘Level of Service for whom?’”

Lockwood likes to point out that the terms engineers use reflect what’s valuable to their profession, not to what a community values.

“The models that traffic engineers use are wrong,” he says. “Transportation planning should be based on community vision, not how many cars pass a point in an hour.”

West Palm was able to show results, Lockwood says, by understanding that the shape and size of streets are important to creating places people want to be in. It led to a master plan by CNU founder Andres Duany and a property tax valuation study being done by Lockwood's successor, Joe Minicozzi, that looks at the higher returns from walkable urbanism versus drivable suburban places.

CNU keynote speaker Chris Leinberger confirmed what’s happening in West Palm follows a pattern. Leinberger studies walkable urbanism like his recent analysis of the entire city of Boston where he calculates developments in places that are transit connected and have density produce four times the net return to local jurisdictions than low density suburban places.

In the Washington, D.C. metro area, tech firms have abandoned a suburban ring road and moved into the city. While the cost to build in the city is 30% higher, the cost of staying in the suburbs is mounting, he says.

“The tech firms that are stuck on the ring road are having to pay a $25,000 signing bonus to compete with firms moving to the city,” Leinberger says. “The suburban edge cities are beginning to crater. It’s the wrong product, and it might become bulldozer bait.”

The goal of many cities is to make walkable urbanism affordable, Leinberger says. Even weak market places like Detroit and Cleveland will grapple with the issue of affordability and NIMBYs (Not in my backyard—the term suggests an anti-gentrification mood that has swept into strong markets). Micro suites like the Intesa development in University Circle are one way of making urban living more affordable, he says.

“It’s the weak markets we have to worry about,” Leinberger confirms. “How do we get the segregated and economically depressed neighborhoods to benefit by WalkUps (walkable urban places)?”

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