Big Shoulders, Big Plans: Chicago Tackles Transit and InfrastructureApr 23rd, 2012 | By Mike Reddy
Heather Smith is the Planning Director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) based in Chicago. The organization promotes the ideals of New Urbanism, an urban design philosophy that includes walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions. Heather has previously worked with the United States Senate, the New York City Department of City Planning, and Chicago Metropolis 2020.
Mayor Emanuel recently announced a $7 billion plan to revamp Chicago’s infrastructure. Do you see the proposed public-private endeavor as a step toward the New Urbanism promoted by CNU? Do you think planning and design have been adequately incorporated into his plan?
I applaud Mayor Emanuel’s ambitious program devoting more dollars to Chicago’s streets, roads and bridges. However, the infrastructure trust is untested. After the parking meter bill, the taxpayers are extremely leery of anything that will cost them more money.
I would also like to see the Red Line extension and more attention to freight as part of this trust and less emphasis on roads that simply cut through communities without adding value.
It has been almost a year since Emanuel chose transportation guru Gabe Klein as commissioner of Chicago’s DOT. What has been his most important contribution to the city of Chicago so far? What is the next DOT program you would like to see implemented?
I think Gabe Klein has done a fantastic job of promoting pedestrian safety and pioneering protected bike lanes. To build on this he should put more of an emphasis on street networks and create more opportunities for Open and Safe streets particularly in neighborhoods plagued by high crash rates. There have been great examples like with cyclovias all over the country and the 2011 Open streets Chicago event. The mayor and his team ought to do more of these events to highlight the importance of our public realms.
CNU has been doing a lot of work on Sustainable Street Networks. We recently released a set of network principles demonstrating the benefits of safety, emergency response and sustainability. I’d like to see the commissioner put more emphasis on connected networks. The Chicago Department of Transportation has done a fantastic job of connecting and preserving important rights of way. We have a great grid system and I’d like to see Chicago do more to connect and preserve networks.
As Chicago become a more bike and pedestrian-accessible city, how can the administration create buy-in among drivers?
The best way to have a more pedestrian and bike friendly city is to get more bikers and more pedestrians on the streets. When you have more people on the street, that is a signal that something is happening. The more bikers there are on streets and paths the more they will be accepted. There needs to be widespread acceptance of protocol and emphasis and respect for all modes. With bikers and pedestrians it is not an either or situation. It is about sharing the road and being respectful of all modes.
Through the speed camera proposal, Chicago has done a great job of staying focused on their mission of creating great public realms throughout the city and paying attention to the most vulnerable citizens and showing that aggressive driving behavior is not acceptable.
Also improving streets for bikers and walkers isn’t a zero-sum and mobility improves for everyone. For more on this see this interview with CNU-New York board member Mike Lydon.
What repercussions will the implementation of a National Infrastructure Bank have on urban planning and community-based reform? How does the creation of a centralized funding source reconcile with a more localized planning process?
The Partnership for Sustainable Communities program is a great example of centralized funding source already in place which is leading community planning reforms. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is doing a fantastic job of leveraging those funds with great examples of updating comprehensive plans and getting communities to think holistically about their long term infrastructure and mobility needs.
An infrastructure bank would add to getting those projects in motion and allow communities to leverage more federal resources.
What city is making exciting strides towards embracing the New Urbanism? What are the primary reasons for its progress? Are there aspects of this city’s plan that can be easily replicated in other locations?
There are plenty of cities making great strides in New Urbanism but the one that really stands out is El Paso, TX.
Their city leadership, particularly with Mathew McElroy has made major strides in adopting new urbanist codes and transportation policies. They will be honored at CNU 20 for their progress. El Paso adopted a form-based code, adopted the CNU/ITE urban thoroughfares manual as policy and have more accredited New Urbanists than nearly any city in the U.S. Finally the City made great use of the Sustainable Communities support and has leveraged it to support comprehensive planning. El Paso has also communicated the economic benefits of New Urbanism throughout their community.
Other leading cities include West Palm Beach, Florida, which made an early commitment to reform its streets, blocks and retail development. The city of Madison, Wisconsin, which debuted its bike sharing program in 2011, is a great leader in New Urbanist reforms. Other great examples include Peoria, IL, and Miami, FL, both of which have adopted award winning Form-Based Codes.
Feature photo: cc/John Picken