Zoning should keep walkable neighborhoods walkable

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Tulsan Sarah Kobos has another insightful essay up at the Strong Towns website, illustrated with her own photos of lousy urban design right here in our hometown. While she's willing to forgive the urban design errors of the post-World War II decades, she politely asks cities to stop making them already:

Fine. We'll add the suburban development pattern to the long list of humanity's mistakes that occurred during the latter half of the 20th century. Like feathered bangs, the Ford Pinto, or any tattoo you got before the age of 35, sometimes we err, not because of malice, but from an understandable combination of ignorance and exuberance.

The thing that really drives me crazy is the present. Now, we know better. We recognize the economic, human health, and environmental benefits of traditional building patterns. And yet, there is so much inertia built into the system, we just keep building car-centric crap like it was 1985.

While there are walkable sections of the city that benefitted from neglect when we were busy tearing down downtown and building suburban neighborhoods, they are now endangered by their own success:

In older parts of the city, walkable neighborhoods are being rediscovered and revitalized because they're interesting, human-scaled, and pleasant. People are drawn to them because they have character, and because it's nice to be able to walk to dinner or bike to meet friends for coffee. Understandably, the moment a particular neighborhood becomes popular--thanks to its historic buildings and traditional building pattern--it will attract new development. But if you're not prepared with zoning laws to enhance and support walkability, you'll get what everyone knows how to build, which is crap for cars.

If you've wondered why urban advocates are so concerned about demolition and redevelopment in downtown and midtown neighborhoods, Sarah offers a clear and simple explanation: It's easier to preserve walkability in neighborhoods that were optimized for people getting around on foot -- with smaller blocks and buildings oriented to the sidewalk -- than to try to create it in neighborhoods that were optimized for getting around in a car. Because of Tulsa's relatively young age, we never had that many walkable neighborhoods to begin with, and too many of those we had have fallen victim to urban renewal, expressway construction, and inappropriate infill development approved by our city officials.

That's why many of us have long believed we should follow in the footsteps of nearly all of our peer regional cities and institute special design-focused land-use rules in our walkable, historic commercial districts. Oklahoma City, Wichita, Little Rock, Dallas, Fort Worth, Kansas City all have design rules customized to protect walkable neighborhoods. Tulsa doesn't, in part because of the idea that chain stores and restaurants will insist on building their standard design everywhere. But anyone who has traveled around the country or around the world has seen examples of standard chains -- McDonald's, 7-Eleven, Walgreens, to name a few -- who have adapted designs to local requirements in order to have a store where there are customers they want to reach.

While our new zoning code allows for this kind of district, certain developers have fought against it tooth-and-nail, and we haven't seen any leadership in the right direction from any of our mayors. Instead, rules that were written for auto-oriented suburban commercial development govern these walkable commercial districts:

Since that time, we have gradually added requirements to our ordinances governing commercial lots: parking per square foot of building space; percent of landscaping area; maximum floor area ratios; building setbacks, prohibitions against residential uses, and many more. But every one of these requirements was created with car-oriented, suburban-style development in mind. The zoning code didn't support the old places built for people on foot, and in far too many cities, ordinances and zoning maps have still not been updated to protect these incredibly valuable assets.

While I've been pleased to see some street-oriented infill development along Cherry Street replacing auto-oriented development -- Roosevelt's (where the car wash used to be), Chipotle, CVS (replacing a convenience store) -- the requirement for a ridiculously large minimum number of parking spaces has required the removal of many homes and small apartment buildings, reducing the number of people who can live affordably within walking distance of all these amenities. The massive parking lots reduce the area's density, which also reduces its economic productivity. Generally speaking, the higher the population density (up to a point far more dense than Tulsa will ever be), the less you have to spend on infrastructure to serve a given population.

I've been hoping for some leadership at City Hall on this issue for many years, but I've long since given up holding my breath. I appreciate the efforts of Tulsans like Sarah Kobos to educate citizens with vivid examples and lively language. Maybe, someday, we'll reach critical mass and see things change.

MORE: A collection of links to past BatesLine articles on zoning generally and in support of overlay districts such as neighborhood conservation districts, urban conservation districts, and historic preservation districts.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 21, 2017 10:44 PM.

Tulsa Drillers: Empty seats at ONEOK Field was the previous entry in this blog.

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