Smart codes equals smart roads

“A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one.”
      - Aristotle

by Gary Piro

lanner Edward McMahon writes that tourism in the Amish area of Pennsylvania is declining. If you visit the area, you'll instantly know why. Although the Amish are still steadfastly holding on to their old traditions and the Amish population is growing, the areas immediately outside the Amish community is rapidly being developed with strip malls, factory outlets, big-box retailers and auto parks.

    The Amish still run their neo-traditional shops in the downtown hamlets of Bird-In-Hand and Intercourse. Immediately adjacent to these areas you can see their traditional family farms, which look very much like they must have looked one-hundred years ago. Unfortunately, the road which goes through these villages is a state “rural highway,” with some sections posted with speed limits as high as 55 miles per hour, forcing the traditional horse-drawn buggies to ride on the road shoulders barely three feet from speeding vehicles.

    This story illustrates that it is not enough for us just to preserve historic areas; we must also examine the standards for new developments that interface with these historic areas. This is a lesson that City of San Diego is heeding as it develops their updated road and community design standards in concert with their historic enhancement projects.

    I was flattered to be asked to serve on San Diego's new Road Standard committee, due to my experience in serving on similar committees with the County of San Diego and the City of Carlsbad. At the first meeting, which occurred on August 3, it was apparent that San Diego's new city council is committed to a new-urbanist “city of villages” road system that is not only for automobiles, but people as well. Rather than just stacking the committee with traffic engineers, consultants and concrete contractor's associations, the membership includes WalkSanDiego, the Bicycle Coalition, environmental interests and “livable road” proponent Michael Stepner of the New School of Architecture.

    Right from the start, it was apparent that Stepner (architect of the highly successful San Diego Gaslamp district) is committed to a radical change to our current design standards and rightly advocates incorporating an overall community design program. He correctly argues that we not only need to look at the typical cross-section of the residential street, but how circulation, landscaping and walkability affect our neighborhood design process.

    There is nothing that defines a community more than its road standards. Almost without exception, neighborhoods that have narrow, tree-lined streets are more desirable to live in than neighborhoods that have excessively wide and straight streets. Areas like Beacon Hill in Boston, Mill Valley in San Francisco and Georgetown in Washington, DC, have extremely narrow streets and are some of this country's most desirable and prestigious places to live.

    In a report commissioned by Smart Growth America, it was found that the way we develop our communities is a prime concern, second only to crime. In a study commissioned by the Walt Disney Corporation (who developed a new urbanist community in Celebration, FL), it was found that one out of two Americans want to live in a “traditional” neighborhood, whereas less than one percent of new developments meet this criteria. The biggest obstacle to changing this trend: standards.

    San Diego's new city council and staff are acutely aware of this. At one council meeting, one councilman was heard to tell the fire department, “if they had their way, every road would be 60 feet wide and every building would be made of concrete.” Subsequently, staff has already significantly reduced the typical road width from the current circa-1970 standard 40 feet to as narrow as 28 feet. They are also embracing the long fought for “offset sidewalk” that make our sidewalks more accessible for the disabled and allows for trees to be cited between the road and the pedestrians.

    There are numerous reasons for revisiting our road standards, the most significant of which is urban runoff and energy efficiency. It is estimated that, for every new road we reduce from 40 feet to 28 feet, we can avoid 4.5 acres of land grading, 1.5 acres of asphalt and 1.2 acres of concrete. Furthermore, in a study done in Visalia, CA, this narrower road (especially if it is constructed with trees adjacent to the curb) will reduce the ambient heat for the road by as much as 10 degrees, which can result in an enerby cost reduction of as much as 10% for each and every new home on that street.

    This narrower road can significantly reduce urban runoff, city maintenance costs and statistically reducing accidents. Not a bad deal! Furthermore, they foster a non-quantifiable sense of community and livability.

    The movement to make our communities safer and more livable has been labeled by Neal Pierce of the National Journal as an “Asphalt Rebellion.” Portland, OR (poster child for smart growth) has implemented a “skinny streets” program with no residential road being wider than 28 feet. In Maryland, Governor Paris Glendening (originator of the term “smart growth”) has implemented a highly successful statewide “Smart Codes” program that is revisiting all of the development ordinances for roads, building setbacks and zoning regulations to make that state more livable and environmentally friendly.

    Unlike the Amish example, San Diego is to be commended for pursuing a set of standards that would allow new communities to embellish its downtown revitalization rather than detract from it.

    Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land-planning firm in San Marcos. Email: