Urban Elements

02 Aug 2010

[Note: I'm reposting this blog originally written in 2008 because it's one of my favorites and because it is particularly relevant in relation to the recent bike lane and commuting blog posts]

Several factors go in to determining how "urban" a neighborhood is: compactness, connectedness, population diversity, diversity of use, and relationship between the private and public space.

The following graph plots these characteristics for a variety of different neighborhoods. The more area enclosed by the graph, the more "urban" a neighborhood is. Continue below the graph for some examples of how it relates to actual Des Moines neighborhoods.

Urban Elements GraphUrban Elements Graph

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The Town Square

27 Jul 2010

Campsite at Long Branch State ParkCampsite at Long Branch State ParkI spent a couple days camping at Long Branch State Park in Missouri this past weekend. Camping in a typical state park is about as "urban" as you can get and still be sleeping in a tent: running water, electricity, showers, and even bags of ice and firewood delivered by a friendly "host" in a golf cart! This time around, however, we opted for the slightly more secluded walk-in sites set back from a central parking lot by 50 yards or so. An easy 3 1/2 hour trip south from Des Moines, Long Branch is a gem of a State Park. As long as it doesn't storm.

But what I really want to talk about here is Bloomfield, Iowa, a town about midway between Des Moines and Macon, Missouri. Bloomfield is the Davis County seat.

The Davis County Courthouse is one of the most incredible pieces of public architecture I have seen. This Second Empire masterpiece is capable of holding its own against just about any other public building in Iowa that I can think of, save the Capitol. Here are some of the elements I believe are important about public architecture:

  1. Visual cues tell the user which building to approach. The courthouse is situated in the middle of a traditional town square. It is the tallest building in the town (perhaps in the county, excepting grain elevators). It is encircled by a ring of two-story brick commercial buildings that face the square. There is simply no question that this building is a place where important things happen.
  2. Gracious pedestrian approach. A sidewalk circles the block, with walkways that directly and understandably approach the building at its main entrance (see below). Old growth trees provide cover for pedestrians and frame views of the building itself.
  3. Understandable and well-marked entry to the building. A grand staircase clearly marks the entrance to this building. From any vantage point, the entry process is clear (assuming, of course that it hasn't been compromised by security procedures that force people to use an obscured entrance).


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Clearly, this courthouse was built as a monument to the law. It must have been a massive public undertaking, though it cost only $45,000 and change at the time to construct. As public architecture, the traditional town square really cannot be improved upon. It truly serves as the heart of the community. It is a stately anachronism that has thrived in an era of budget cuts and anonymous public buildings.

According to the online history of the courthouse this building was conceived as just such a place. At his Fourth of July address on the public square in Bloomfield, July 4, 1876, Colonel S.A. Moore said, "A new and brighter era of peace and prosperity is dawning upon the nation, that ere long will throw the full tide of its glory upon a united people; and in view of this coming prosperity, Davis county will erect a public building that will do honor to the present and future generations."

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"Shoot Your Commute"

16 Jul 2010

Experience for yourself the impact that a street full of single-occupancy vehicles has on traffic and congestion!

Urban Ambassadors is bringing together sustainable transportation advocates in Greater Des Moines to recreate the famous Munster, Germany photo (see profile pic) in our fair city. Plus, have a fun after...-party to network and meet crazy, interesting, fellow residents!

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What's the Rush?

16 Jul 2010

Lego Rush HourLego Rush HourOne of the responsibilities of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is to monitor and report on interstate highway traffic patterns. This data is used to build a long-range transportation plan based on traffic and trip projections.

The Business Record recently published an article analyzing 2009 MPO data (PDF report) that contained a table with morning and evening commute data between downtown and the western junction of I-235 and I-35.

Stick with me through this analysis - am I reading this data right?

The distance from Downtown to the the I-35 junction is 8.3 miles. Of that segment, approximately 5.5 miles is posted at 60 MPH and 2.8 is posted at 55 MPH. Therefore, the legal minimum amount of time it takes to drive from downtown to the western junction is (5.5/60)+(2.8/55)=.143 hours or 8.55 minutes.

Because 8.55 minutes is the fastest one can legally drive the segment of I-235 between downtown and the western junction, I'm going to refer to this as the "legal posted minimum" travel time.

Rush Hour?

According to the MPO data as presented by the Business Record, Des Moines doesn't really have a rush hour.

Actual measured average travel time over this segment only exceeds the legal posted minimum travel time between 7:45 and 8:15 am in the eastbound lanes and between 5:00 and 5:45 pm in the westbound lanes.

It gets even better!

According to the Business Record analysis, the average difference in commute time between the actual measured and the legal posted minimum is a minuscule 15 seconds! In other words, if you drive legally and safely even when you can speed, your commute between the western suburbs and Downtown Des Moines will average only 15 seconds longer during "rush hour".

Of course the speed data also includes those people that put the pedal to the metal once they have an opening in traffic. And, during non-rush hour times, the average speed across the entire segment is above the posted limit. In some areas, significantly above.

Breakin' the Law!

Discussing the data, the Business Record said:

Your absolute best option - if your bosses will allow it - is to get on I-235 at about 7 a.m. and go home at about 4 p.m. Over the course of time, you could save three minutes per day on average. That might not sound like much, but translate that over the course of 10 years, and you can save upwards of five days of your life.

Actually, this is only true if you break the law.

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This summer, the federal government's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities is taking applications for $100 million in grants for regional planning projects that promote alternatives to automobile transportation. Unfortunately, despite some high profile transit and rail projects, most of the stimulus spending has gone or will be going towards roads and highways.

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... is like trying to lose weight by loosening your belt.

So says a commenter on a DM Register story about the southwest connector now under construction by the Des Moines Airport. This is a great comparison because (though transportation planners will rarely admit) we know that widening roads and adding lanes doesn't relieve congestion. Rather, it encourages additional development leading to more congestion.

The following photo was taken on I-80 just east of Waukee, where the interstate will soon be widened. At 3:30 in the afternoon, traffic was at a standstill.

Traffic Jam on I-80: Traffic stalled on Interstate 80 at 3:00 in the afternoon.Traffic Jam on I-80: Traffic stalled on Interstate 80 at 3:00 in the afternoon.

As I wrote before, Waukee's formerly substantial rate of growth has plummeted in recent years. Even so, it is a fabulous mistake for current Waukee residents to assume that their "crowded" commute to Des Moines will be eased by expanding the highway. Scores of millions of dollars later, what they will likely find is that additional population and higher individual vehicle miles traveled will erase any "gains" experienced soon after the expanded road opens.

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A recent letter to the editor written by Jon Turner to the Des Moines Register in favor of the MLK extension project falls prey to several commonly-held transportation myths. I want to debunk these myths here.

Come to my Beaverdale neighborhood anytime during peak travel hours and try to cross Beaver Avenue at an intersection that does not have crossing lights.

Traffic control and traffic volume are NOT the same thing. The letter to the editor makes this common error of assuming that reducing traffic volume is the only way to make a street easier to navigate at rush hour. In fact, controlling traffic flow is actually easier than controlling traffic volume - one can plan a control strategy. Volume is a function of a variety of factors, most of which are outside the realm of direct control. What the author can control is his own travel path during known times of heavy traffic.

Adding streets and Interstate connections will NOT reduce overall traffic. It is a commonly known, though not commonly acknowledged, fact that new and widened streets do not reduce congestion. Ironically, they increase congestion due to increasing the total vehicle miles traveled. Until we rethink our underlying transportation system and subsidies for single-occupancy vehicle travel, road additions and widening will remain a game of catch-up.

Let's reduce the number of vehicles speeding through my residential area trying to beat the flow out of town every night.

The author bases his entire argument on the fundamentally flawed assumption that a connector from Downtown through I-80 will reduce traffic through Beaverdale - a neighborhood several miles west of downtown, with no direct street connection. It is just too big a leap to assume that any measurable amount of Beaverdale's through-traffic is people trying to save time by cutting through 6 miles of local streets to get to the northwestern suburbs.

The last time I checked, not one single person lives in the pathway of the proposed extension north of Euclid Avenue.

There are two separate sections of the proposed extension. One section cuts through a protected wetland. The other cuts through an established neighborhood. The author minimizes the impact on the wetlands area (not my area of expertise) and ignores the impact on the actual residential neighborhoods affected by the expansion (my area of expertise).

While there may be valid arguments in favor of the extension, I have yet to hear any that positively and demonstrably benefit the City of Des Moines.

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Last week, I took the following photo at the northwest exit of the downtown branch of the public library!

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?

So, you know that while I think the design concept behind the downtown library is somewhat intriguing, I am not a big fan of it as a public building. I believe that just like you and me, municipal architecture has a responsibility to be a good public citizen.

To residents, this means things not littering, stopping at red lights, and ending your 4th of July celebrations by midnight.

Public buildings have different responsibilities:

  • Respecting the street edge
  • Presenting a gracious and understandable entry
  • And perhaps most important, not trapping their occupants inside in case of an emergency

Though the entire facade (including the exit door) is made of glass, it is unlikely that occupants could break it in an emergency - it is three layers thick, plus a layer of copper mesh.

I hope there is a good reason for blockading this exit with a 2x4 from the outside but I can't think of one. While it is unlikely that there would be an emergency necessitating use of this exit, emergencies are by definition unplanned and emergency exits are not allowed to be blocked.

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Mosquito Alert

02 Jul 2010

[UPDATE 7/2/2010 - Funding has been approved by the Des Moines City Council for short-term resumption of spraying for adult mosquitoes. The spraying map (dependent on weather conditions) is available online at http://arcgis.dmgov.org/extmapcenter/mosquitomap.aspx]

As summer get into full humid swing, so comes mosquito season, and this year is set to be particularly mosquito-ridden. Due to severe budget constraints, the City will not be spraying for adult mosquitoes.

The city will continue to maintain the capability to spray for adult mosquito control if and when circumstances call for these measures, such as an impending public health emergency. In the interim, citizens are encouraged to eliminate breeding sites around the home such as stagnant water in birdbaths, gutters, and garden pots. Wear protective clothing such as long sleeve shirts and long pants if you must be outside during the early morning or late evening hours when mosquito activity is generally at its peak.

Anopheles (mosquito)Anopheles (mosquito)Two evenings ago, I sought refuge from the heat of our house (the air conditioning is out) by working on the front porch. My setup included laptop, Sam Adams (of course), pens, floor plan drawings to correct, and a heavy dousing of high octane mosquito repellent. Yet even with multiple applications over the course of an hour, the mosquitoes were somehow finding places to bite that I didn't even know I had.

Mosquito fogging is one of those quality of life issues that is easy to take for granted until it is gone... certainly the inconvenience of mosquito bites is less critical to public safety than, say, fire protection, but the little things add up. People who live near Greenwood park will be inside all summer - the mosquitoes are simply unbearable in that "neck of the woods" so to speak.

Note that in a public health emergency such as an outbreak of mosquito-borne illness, the City will undertake control measures. Until then, we just have to tough it out against the small but mighty Anopheles.

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The Census Bureau releases annual population estimates by City. The most recent (2009) estimates were released last week.

I pulled statistics for the Des Moines metro area and created a couple graphs to show trends over time. Here are the top five things I noticed in these graphs:

1 - The City of Des Moines has clearly turned a corner

Like many central cities that have experienced declines in population, the City of Des Moines is is now gaining population in absolute numbers. This is good for the City and good for the region.

Des Moines MSA Population Trend by CityDes Moines MSA Population Trend by City

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