Monday, June 30, 2014

When a street is not a road.

My year and a half in Afghanistan working under the US Air Force confronted me with a new acronym almost every day.  One of the bases for which I wrote a comprehensive plan required a “Glossary of Acronyms” in order to sort them all out, ballooning to several pages in length.  It was exhausting.

And then there are the words made up on the spot.

Generally speaking, I leave neologisms to the likes of Buckminster Fuller.  And even though acronyms don’t qualify as newly minted words, they can serve largely the same semantic function.  It’s hard not to scan the cultural forces that help to elicit both acronyms and neologisms with a certain level of amusement.  I’ll admit that I’ve deployed a new word from my artillery from time to time.  (I’d like to think I coined the term “popera” long before it achieved musical relevancy, but no one will see me phoning my lawyer.) Even though the output of fabricated labels within the discipline of urban studies pales in comparison to the Department of Defense, I still find that I’m rarely in the up-and-up when it comes to new trends or the modish terms to describe them.

Which brings us to the stroad.  I wasn’t aware of what a stroad was until just a few months ago.  Semantically, it seems just as inaccurate as the faƧadectomy that I have referenced a few times in the past.  After all, “stroad” is a portmanteau of “street” and “road”, used to characterize an arterial that seems to share features of both, but also nullifies their intrinsic advantages.  But aren’t “street” and “road” synonymous?  According to a recent City Lab article, Chuck Marohn, a “recovering traffic engineer”, coined the term “stroad” to describe any right-of-way that “moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector development”.  Therefore, a stroad tries to achieve the most desirable characteristics of both roads (for their ability to move vehicular traffic quickly) and streets (for their ability to link neighborhood features in an aesthetic manner that remains safe and appealing for all users).  It fails on both counts. According to Marohn, “anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour [as is typically characteristic of a stroad], you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return.”  Marohn has created a video through his nonprofit Strong Towns that offers a visualization of an archetypal stroad. 

My long-repressed English major has turned me into an insufferable semantic nitpicker.  Here I criticize Marohn for placing two words—street and road—into tidy, discrete semantic boxes…two words that for most people are fungible.  Beyond that, I need to chill out, because Marohn’s neologism is effective in pretty much every other sense.  Regardless of whether or not a stroad blends a street and a road, as anyone else would define it, it still feels like a hybrid of two types of right-of-way.  Perhaps it cold be called an arterial and a collector (a “collecterial”?), but then those two terms are fully entrenched in the lingo of transportation engineers.

“Stroad” really conveys another key point.  It’s one ugly sounding word—clipped, aggressive and vulgar.  It almost sounds like a blend of stoat and toad, two largely unloved animals.  And, in my first real-life encounter with a stroad (at least at a point when I knew what the word meant), the first thing that occurred to me was the unattractiveness of the landscape.  Here it is:

I’m looking eastward down Michigan Avenue, in the Great Lake State’s capital of Lansing.  And it’s obvious that this major street, which connects downtown Lansing to the campus of Michigan State University in nearby East Lansing, has enjoyed a number of investments that attempt to make it a more attractive environment for pedestrians.  Notice the vintage lamps hugging the curbs.  Another angle reveals some “bulb out” sidewalk designs intended to lower the section of the street necessary for walkers to cross at a given crosswalk, as seen below:

And, to be fair, quite a few of the structures on the north side of the street (to the left in these photos) date from a time period when most buildings directly addressed the sidewalk.   But the side on which I was standing—the south side—shows the fierce competition that those handsome old two-story buildings must face.

To be fair, real estate speculators have caught on to the notion that this is a redeveloping area, and someone is trying to market this corner parcel to capitalize on what is ostensibly an emerging district for young professionals.

I wish this developer the best of luck.  He or she may very well succeed.  After all, just a half-block to the west, on the north side of the street, sits the Cooley Law School Stadium, an apparent recent addition that has prompted certain civic boosters to brand this stretch of Michigan Avenue as the “Stadium District”.

And on the otherwise desolate south side of the street, another obviously recent mixed-use development sits just a little further to the west, ostensibly capitalizing on the Stadium District name.

And, another block to the west, an old industrial building has benefited from a repurposing into a mixed-use facility with restaurants on the first floor.

Perhaps Michigan Avenue will come together wonderfully as a corridor with densely interwoven different uses.  It doesn’t hurt to be optimistic.  After all, this stroad terminates just a few blocks further to the east, at the Michigan State Capitol. 

The elongated dome of the Capitol is visible in the distance.  So this Stadium District is just a football toss away from Lansing’s downtown and the center of Michigan’s government.  (But, incidentally, not the Ingham County seat.  Lansing is among the only state capitals that is not also the center of government for its respective county.)  But compare Michigan Avenue to another, smaller commercial thoroughfare in central Lansing:

The above pictures reveal the streetscape for Washington Square, a street perpendicular to Michigan Avenue that runs just a block east of the capitol.  Both roads are visible on the map below:

On Washington Square, cars can still get where they need to be, but never while careening at 50 miles per hour.  The abundance of on-street parking—most of it occupied on a lazy Saturday afternoon—integrates peaceably with the copious sidewalk-oriented buildings, resulting in an environment that is far more likely to foster higher concentrations of pedestrians.  Compare once more with Michigan Avenue just a few blocks away:

Churck Marohn recognizes that stroads often boast superlative investment.  But to what end?  The sidewalk on the right looks great, with decorative brick pavers, street trees, and wrought iron gates.  But the gaps between all the buildings on the right suggest that most landowners in this area still prefer setting aside plenty of space for off-street parking. Meanwhile, on the left, abutting the Cooley Law School Stadium, is another big parking lot.

And since parking lots are not exactly a high-intensity land use, chances are the land values along Michigan Avenue are significantly lower than Washington Square.  Admittedly, Washington Square is in the heart of downtown, but Michigan Avenue’s effort to assert itself as a competing Uptown district isn’t bearing the same fruit.

On his stroad video, Marohn asserts, “Parking lots don’t employ anyone, and parking lots don’t pay a lot of taxes, so this environment becomes very low-yielding.”  Frankly, it’s amazing that this stroad has even achieved what we see now.   But the investment to get here has been formidable, and it’s hard to imagine that the buildings that flank this seven-lane arterial will ever host sufficient density to make it hot real estate that can attract college students away from the much better, stroad-less street network in MSU’s hometown of East Lansing.  The only conceivable way to scale down this stretch of Michigan Avenue would be to turn it into a full-fledged street—or at least Marohn’s definition of a street—by giving it a road diet that invites the superfluous lanes to accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, carefully deployed greenery, or mass transit stops.  But that, again, would require more infrastructural investment—the exact sort of Pyrrhic victory that has borne so many stroads in the first place.  By this point, that sort of money would go to better use in a complete urban dictionary.  Or a guide to the US Air Force acronyms.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Aging at home: does it have to be an uphill climb?

Baby Boomers remain the largest generation by volume of any recorded in the history of the United States.  This label, part of common parlance from coast to coast, imposes artificial bookends upon a group of people whose only real commonality is that they were conceived in the years following World War II—a spike in the birthrate that gives them gravitas, almost tautologically, again thanks to their formidable numbers.  They have shaped everything, particularly as they grew up and passed legal voting age, but then they continued to do so as they amassed wealth and earned a previously inconceivable purchasing power.  And their influence will undoubtedly continue in their wake after the last of them dies out.

Grim as it may be to talk about death, the first baby boomer became eligible for social security on October 15, 2007 (turning 62 on January 1, 2008), and, while a generation widely characterized by ambition and upward mobility is likely to defer retirement, eventually old age will catch up with it.   The widespread proliferation of extended care facilities, senior communities, and the younger “active adult” subdivisions is evidence that a sizable portion of the population is demanding a residential typology that scarcely existed 50 years ago, when most people were only expected to live a half dozen years after retirement.

But how do we respond to those who have no desire to leave the places they have called home for most of their adult lives?

A house like this, in the working class Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, downriver from the Motor City, may at least shed a flicker of light on what’s happening.  And, as is often the case, I’m making assumptions with little more than my own peepers: I have no idea the age or family make-up of the folks who call this tidy bungalow home.  But the outside evidence suggests they are contending with the forces that father time imposes on our muscles, bones and joints.

The contraption leading to the front door should make it clear what I’m suggesting: it’s a wheelchair ramp.  And it’s an elaborate one.

More often than not, they have to be elaborate. Homes dating from this time period (between the 1920s and 1940s, I’d suspect) rarely accommodated people who depended on wheelchairs for mobility, partly due to lack of any organized advocacy on behalf of disabled people and heavily due to lack of demand.  Not only were people with access or functional needs less likely to expect navigability or self-sufficiency, the world simply had fewer of them around.  The life cycle simply didn’t mesh well with disabilities, and disabled people likely depended on either family or hired caretakers.  Times have changed, and homes with an extensive ramp like this one in Lincoln Park have grown increasingly common.

Aside from the physicality of the house itself, the space around it could pose a huge challenge.  Wheelchairs require a very gentle grade change of 1:12.  Otherwise, most users don’t have the strength to apply the needed torque to proceed up the slope, or their caretakers may be unable to push.  While motorized chairs can mitigate against topography to some extent, they are undoubtedly more expensive and may not be desirable for those who have enough upper-body capability to wheel themselves around.  Thus, to get the ramp they need to their front doors, many homeowners must sacrifice a good part of the front yard.

What’s interesting about the house in Lincoln Park is that it ostensibly has enough room, even though it rests on what would typically be a small parcel in a relatively dense, walkable pre-war neighborhood. While most of the homes in Lincoln Park claim narrow lots, this homeowner has ample space for a ramp on the one side.

But why would there be such a gap between homes, when the normal configuration for neighborhoods from this time period is much closer-knit, with minimal side yards?

It would appear that this modest little yellow house used to have a neighbor.  Just beyond the handicapped parking sign—to its left in the photo above—is a curb cut, with a paved strip wide enough for a car.  It’s hard to imagine any other purpose for that than a driveway that once led to a garage…to a garage that once served a house.  The house almost definitely was demolished, and enough of the pavement was removed to clear the ground for fresh turf.  All that remains is the strip between the sidewalk and the curb cut.

It’s neither possible nor reasonable to postulate that the owners of the yellow house bought the adjacent property, then demolished it, in part to expand their yard and to provide enough room for the handicapped ramp.  That former home could have befallen a million different fates.  But unlike Detroit, where demolished homes have routinely induced gaps in the streetscape, a lacuna such as this is rare in Lincoln Park.  And the generous side yard addresses what otherwise could have been a great enough engineering challenge to preclude this family’s ability to remain in their house.

Sweeping wheelchair ramps in front yards may not jump out to the unattuned eye—after all, we’ve seen the proliferation of accessible commercial and public buildings over the two decades since ADA passed—but it’s easy to surmise that their numbers are growing.    After all, those baby boomers may soon start facing the mobility impairments that accompany old age, and few houses, both old and new, meet the sundry requirements that allow households to age in place.  Aside from replacing all stairs with ramps, wheelchair friendly structures require significant additional retrofits.  Hinges must allow doors to pivot across a broader space in order to accommodate the gentler turn radii of wheelchairs.  Cabinets cannot be placed too high.  Knobs on stovetops—and the burners themselves—can’t be out of reach from a seated position.  Toilets need ample room and often bars for leverage to allow ingress and egress.  The operability of the most mundane household objects no longer seems so benign.   And I can’t begin to guess how the wheelchair-dependent person at this Lincoln Park house manages to get up to the next floor.   It may be little more than an attic or auxiliary space.  But if the bedroom’s up there, it’s probable that the family had to retrofit a room on the first floor to serve as the bedroom.  And since many older homes only have one bathroom, that spatial arrangement could also pose a huge problem if the loo is on what we Americans call floor two.

“Aging in place” may soon become a household term as this populated generation faces access and functional needs in an array of houses not built to accommodate them.  Americans with Disabilities Act standards are already ubiquitous, and HUD provided accessibility guidelines for affordable housing, coincident to the passage of ADA.  Could this cohort’s demand for ramps and broad bathrooms reach such an apex that it actually hurts the overall market for conventional housing?  Will the younger, less populous, able-bodied generation seek out a glut of homes entering the market?  Perhaps the boomers will resort to the tactics on display in these photos.

A colleague at a recent conference cogently observed that we rarely see sweeping ramps to front doors in high-income neighborhoods.  They dominate blue-collar areas.  A variety of cultural shifts over the next decade could corroborate if the aging in place phenomenon is socioeconomically driven, but it’s easy to speculate now whether such an assertion is true.  More affluent neighborhoods use their homeowners associations to create covenants attached to the deeds, which can restrict major modifications that could vitiate the aesthetics of the community.  These covenants may therefore require homeowners to find subtler and more expensive means of solving mobility problems.  Affluent homeowners may amortize their loans at a slightly earlier point in life, giving them more leverage in selling and moving to an appropriately suited domicile after retirement—one that better allows them to age in place than the one they enjoyed during their career years.  Lastly, affluent adults generally boast superior access to doctors and preventative care specialists, meaning they could be slightly less likely to face mobility impairments caused by common conditions such as stroke, since heart disease or cardiovascular-related ailments routinely affect lower-income people more often and at younger ages.

Regardless of how the baby boomers’ silver tsunami shapes future sociological studies, a fixed asset such as real estate will have to adapt to our morphing, creaky bodies.  The development world’s response to an as-of-yet undetermined demand shift could exert a profound impact on the shape and appearance of residential communities.  And we won’t always be able to bulldoze the home next door to make way for a new entrance.