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In a recent column, Pete Golis suggested an agenda for Santa Rosa's new City Council: "It needs (to find) a response to climate change that involves more than window dressing. It needs an urban design plan that begins by making the city more welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists."

Why did he suggest an "urban design plan" instead of a "land use plan," which is the more conventional term?

Land use planning separates uses into shopping centers, business parks, residential suburbs and soccer complexes. Because uses are separated, cars are required; everyone drives to get to their daily activities. If you are part of the population that doesn't drive, such as children or the elderly, this pattern of design does not work for you.

At the street level massive sound walls are common. Subdivisions have many disconnected cul-de-sacs with gated entries. Two- and three-car garages create a dull street scene. Finally, the active part of the home, the kitchen and great room are placed furthest from the street, so that they typically look out onto the private backyard.

This means fewer opportunities for happenstance meetings of neighbors. It also gives us eerily vacated streets. The carbon footprint of this lifestyle is 11 tons per year. Oh yes, and typically very few people in these isolated "pods" bike or walk in their daily life.

Urban design takes a completely different approach to town design. Instead of broad bands of separated uses, the basic element of the plan is a five-minute walking radius (half mile circle). Uses are mixed with varying amounts of intensity from rural to downtown areas.

An example of how this is done comes from my experience doing a smart code and urban design plan for the city of Pass Christian in Mississippi after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The very real fear at the time was that the conventional code that was the "land use plan" at the time would not allow for the re-creation of the mixed-use walkable historic fabric of the town that had been destroyed.

The town was seven square-miles in size. The basic question was, "What design will allow current and future residents to walk to a gathering place within five minutes of their home? How can we connect these gathering places to each other and to the downtown?"

An overall smart code was created that set up new rules for the further development of the walking circle areas in the future. Those rules emphasized those elements of the built environment that make walking and bicycling interesting and friendly; street widths that calm traffic, parking lots located behind buildings and street frontages filled with stoops, shop fronts and porches instead of blank garages. (See www.ci.pass-christian.ms.us/ and click on the Smart Code button.)

Creating a welcoming city for pedestrians and cyclists requires that individual privately owned homes and businesses each contribute their frontage to the overall walkable street scene. Local examples include downtown Petaluma. That smart code and urban design regulating plan was based on walking circles centered on the Theatre District, railroad depot and the downstream riverfront property near Highway 101.

Windsor has one downtown walking circle focused on the train depot and another one at Shiloh Road. Santa Rosa's Railroad Square has a walkable area on the books centered on the depot.

Golis is right. Urban design is the right tool to take our towns toward a zero carbon future. The benefits of doing so include greater health and happiness for those lucky enough to live in these old (or new) walkable parts of town.

'You just gotta get out of here:' Read the Mercury News story here

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

My recommendation is that Santa Rosa move from the overwhelming focus that has been placed on downtown and create a citywide optional form-based code zoning district with all the standards and code requirements necessary to create these low carbon neighborhoods.

Next, quarter-mile radius walking circles would be drawn that center on planned depot stations, or include significant amounts of developable or redevelopable land, vacated right-of-way, obsolete surface parking lots, etc. These circles need to be connected to each other or placed along a planned streetcar line.

Urban design plans using the optional form-based code would be created for these walking circles one at a time as funding becomes available.

There is lots of talk of a New Deal focusing on creating a new green infrastructure for America. Rules recently passed by the California Air Resource Board include incentives for local governments to curb sprawl in an effort to reduce how far people drive from home to work or school.

Sonoma County has done a lot in this regard, but there is a lot more to do to so that all of its citizens can have the opportunity to walk or bike along an active, safe and interesting street scene to their daily activities and take us beyond window dressing to a near zero carbon future.

Lois Fisher is president of Fisher Town Design in Santa Rosa.

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