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MiCNU Member Book Review: Lee Hardy

Calvin University professor and long-time urban advocate Lee Hardy has provided a book review for Implementing Urban Design: Green, Civic, and Community Strategies by Jonathan Barnett.

Below is the full review, which Lee has shared with MiCNU.

On the spectrum ranging from theory to practice, Jonathan Barnett’s latest book lies close to the far end of practice, as its title would suggest. The work is, in the author’s words, about the “complicated interactive process” of “bringing an urban design concept to its real-world completion.” Its ten chapters showcase examples of urban design implementation in which Barnett was professionally involved as a consultant, providing the reader with an insider’s view of the process in the form of first-person narratives. Each chapter concludes with a section devoted to implementation strategies. The strategies described and discussed across the chapters fall into three categories: green, civic, and community. Green strategies aim to preserve the natural environment; civic strategies to protect multiple civic interests; community strategies to promote the community both as a participant in the early phases of the design process and as a beneficiary of its product: the walkable neighborhoods that serve as the basic building blocks of cities and regions. The projects themselves range from neighborhood infill and redevelopment to megaregional planning. All, it should be noted, take place in the United States. Design practitioners outside the States may nonetheless benefit from the strategic lessons to the degree that their cultural and regulatory environments are similar, and to the degree that the lessons are general in nature. The narratives contain more personal –and personnel – information than most designers will find useful; but they will surely supply city historians with an abundance of material.

Barnett’s general approach as an urban design consultant involves three steps: first, analyzing existing conditions; second, showing what happens if development were to take place in line with current trends; third (on the safe assumption that current trends will not lead to the best outcome), outlining more desirable, yet feasible, alternatives. In short, the job of the consultant is to enable the client and the public to make well-informed decisions.

At the regional planning level, Barnett highlights the analytic power of information technology and the promise of Bus Rapid Transit. Currently, regional growth in the United States chases the interstate highway system. Old zoning codes – typically blind to the particular features of the natural environment – follow, laying down dismal strip malls and requiring minimum lots sizes for low-density residential development – in effect, mandating car-dependent sprawl. IT tools like ArcGIS and its Spatial Analyst Extension not only make for accurate population projections given attraction values assigned to locations such as job centers, transit and highway interchanges, and developable land; they can also reveal in detail the existing conditions of the natural environment, making it possible to adapt the plans to nature rather than adapting nature to the plans by way of massive civil engineering. The Spatial Analyst Extension, in particular, allows rural areas to be mapped with five distinct overlays detailing habitat, water, wetlands, agriculture, and contiguity. For those interested, Barnett has gone into more detail on regional design in his Designing the Megaregion, Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale (Island Press, 2020); and designing for climate change, with Matthijs Bouw, in Managing the Climate Crisis (Island Press, 2022).

Because of the rise of e-commerce and the effects of COVID-19, many retail bays in the strip malls lining suburban arterials now stand vacant. As Barnett sees it, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), combined with zoning changes, holds the promise of transforming failing strip malls into a series of "pedestrian sheds” with a mix of retail, office, and higher density residential within a 5 to 10-minute walking distance of a BRT stop. BRT has many light-rail features that make for convenient, efficient, and affordable transit: frequent service, reasonably spaced stops, dedicated travel lanes, multiple doors, elevated station platforms, and tickets purchased before boarding to minimize boarding and deboarding times. But the capital costs are lower since it does not involve the installation of rail. The 9.4 mile BRT “Health Line” in the city of Cleveland took $200 million to build, but over the first ten years of its operation (2008-2018) it generated an estimated $9.4 billion of investment within a half-mile of the line.

This past year has clearly demonstrated that the climate crisis is no longer a thing of the future. It has arrived. Floods, wildfires, drought, famines, heat waves, and migration will lead, Barnett writes in the Afterward, to “encouraging redevelopment of all urbanized areas into compact walkable communities” as well as deep green transit and energy infrastructure. That will involve significant change, and therefore meet substantial resistance. All the more reason to pay attention to the implementation strategies recommended by a wise and seasoned practitioner.

Jonathan Barnett is emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning and the

former Director of the Urban Design Studio at the University of Pennsylvania.

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