Modern Ghost Towns

The rise and fall of the automobile has had some sad consequences, and this is just the beginning. All told, 51 lots went into foreclosure. Now the 28-acre Hidden Ridge subdivision really is a mirage. It’s got new lamp posts lining freshly paved cul-de-sacs. But no homes, only weeds and cockeyed, rusting for-sale signs. “They […]

Suburban Sprawl – The Developer’s View

The big picture just doesn’t register with some executives. Sprawl is bad for the planet and bad for humans, particularly in light of Peak Oil. Here is the justification for further suburban development in Melbourne, Australia. Death knell sounded for Aussie suburbs | NEWS.com.au Victoria’s housing estate developers are represented by the Urban Development Institute […]

Suburbs are not for Grandmas

109756385_a9bd923687_m A recent article in the Globe and Mail points out a real planning issue for our times…

The suburbs weren’t built for grandmas – and that’s a planning problem for sprawling cities, experts say, when one in five Canadians will be old enough to be a grandparent by 2021.

globeandmail.com: The aging problem of suburbia

With infrastructure built for a driving population, elderly people just won’t get out of their homes as much, and will rely on others to come to them, for food, cleaning, medical assistance and every other type of product or service.

Are the suburbs and our existing housing stock really up to providing this sort of service? One elderly person quoted in the article says,

It takes her an hour door-to-door to travel by bus for a bag of milk, but the buses lower their doors, and she says the drivers are always thoughtful. Once a month, she gets a ride to the grocery store, and twice a month, a housecleaner handles the bigger chores. Her children, who live out of town, take good care of her. The library drops off book orders at her apartment building, an endeavour she helps organize. She belongs to a seniors club and a theatre group that takes in matinees.

Some of my thoughts on the matter…

  • Speed limits should be lowered in residential areas so that elderly people can take a walk safely,
  • areas without sidewalks should dedicate  part of the road to bikes, walking and seniors scooters, and
  • pedestrian crossings should be timed for the elderly to safely make it across without danger.

What would you need in your suburb if you couldn’t drive anymore?

Transforming Rural Communities – Pedestrians

walkingOne of the great things about being in a rural town or city is the opportunities to enjoy walking, out in the woods, the bush, by a river, in the mountains, all at your doorstep. Unfortunately, many rural towns are poorly laid out for walking, and provide little or no sidewalk amenity, that walking can be difficult or even dangerous.

Sometimes it’s nice to be able to walk along a meandering country road, stopping to pick the blackberries growing by the side of the road, but equally, one thing that cities have got right is valuing sidewalks and footpaths as part of the streetscape, even enforcing the installation of them during subdivision of land. Most North Americans are more aware than ever before that they should probably be out doing more exercise, and that walking is a good form of low impact fitness training. When you sit at a desk or drive a truck all day, you need to get out for a walk at some stage.

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Why Sidewalks?

Where there is a density of population, or even a common transport route between areas of residence and business, sidewalks should be considered to separate and protect pedestrians from vehicular traffic. Sidewalks shouldn’t be installed on every street, but foot and bicycle traffic routes should be identified early in the planning process and pathways installed to suit.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune shows how many residents in rural feeling subdivisions don’t want sidewalks…

Sidewalks crack suburb tranquillity | Chicago Tribune

Although sidewalks are fine with many communities, adding them to existing neighborhoods can create a firestorm. In Western Springs, people have complained about the cost.

In Mokena, residents in an older part of town opposed sidewalks because they would ruin the rural feel. And in Northbrook, more than 170 homeowners have signed petitions against having sidewalks poured on their blocks after the town budgeted $6 million to add them in targeted areas across the village. Some say sidewalks could disturb trees and landscaping, and others fear who might come sauntering through their neighborhoods.

walkingThe article goes on to bemoan the various impacts of sidewalk on all aspects of life, and why lots of people are fighting against it. I love the arguments relating to fear, what’s with that? Do predators only walk on sidewalks? Are they more safety conscious than the average person?

The safety aspects can’t be ignored, especially on highly trafficked roads and highways. Through town, here in Castlegar, Columbia Avenue (Highway 22) has sidewalk on at least one side of the road for most of it’s length, but in those areas where it is only on one side, the other side of the road is downright dangerous to walk on, with residences fronting onto the highway.

Here’s a useful checklist for why we should be installing sidewalk…

PEDSAFE : recommended guidelines/priorities for sidewalks and walkways

Typically, communities should focus on:

  1. improving conditions for people who are currently walking (including improved accessibility to sidewalk facilities for pedestrians with disabilities),
  2. increasing levels of walking, and
  3. reducing the number of crashes involving pedestrians. Setting targets will help in the development of criteria for installing and retrofitting sidewalks.

The Engineering Side of Sidewalks

Sidewalks are generally constructed from concrete, and in some cases asphalt, they provide a smooth, easy cleaned surface for pedestrians of all ages and levels of mobility to navigate safely through an area. People with limited mobility, particularly those with walking difficulties, those that are wheelchair mobile only, and those with limited vision are able to use the public space of the road reserve in a manner that poses less risk or threat of injury when there are sidewalks installed. An interesting statistic is that 20% of the US population has a disability, and 30% of the population doesn’t drive (source Pedsafe). These people need suitable facilities to walk.

pedestrianSidewalks are often, but not always accompanied by curb and gutter. Several subdivisions I was involved in designing in Australia retained stormwater swales and culverts, no curb and gutter, and managed to include an extensive network of footpaths and bike paths. It just requires a bit of innovative thinking.

However, curb and gutter, or some type of concrete structure, an edge beam perhaps, will help define the road width better and protect the traveling surface from raveling and breaking apart. Roads with curb and gutter usually have less stormwater issues, with low points being drained by a system of catch basins and pipes. Many rural residential roads could be easily improved through the installation of defined drainage paths and well landscaped paths.

Many people think that because I’m a Civil Engineer, everything must be in straight lines, perpendicular or parallel, perfectly geometric circles to the fourth decimal place…

I got over that years ago.

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Subdivision design is not about straight lines and perfectly geometric shapes, it’s about creating a sense of place, with a design that does work geometrically, (cause we do have codes and standards to meet), but also meets a standard of aesthetic that is usually found in the real of landscape architects, not engineers. Pathways and sidewalks are an easy part of the urban fabric to bend and twist to suit the site, sweeping around existing trees, winding through the road reserve corridor, adding interest to the urban realm.

The Sidewalk Solution

There is no one right answer to the how’s where’s and when’s of sidewalk installation.

Most new developments with a density of more that five lots to the hectare, (half acres lots) should have sidewalk at least on one side of the road. Existing developments without dedicated sidewalks should be considered for formalizing one side of the road right of way for walking. In Castlegar, BC where I live, many of the roads are without curb and gutter or even ditches, as the underlying material is so sandy that 95% of the runoff is easily infiltrated to groundwater. This makes installing concrete sidewalks difficult, but perhaps even gravel paths would suffice in many of these areas. Alternative surfaces can and should be investigated and raised as an option to the local municipality.

A community without walking paths is less likely to walk.

Resources: Pedsafe – US Department of Transportation

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New Technology in the Civil Design Process

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One of the great difficulties in being a creative-minded Civil Engineer is the limitations imposed by convention, drawing standards and, of course, the tools used to produce drawings. The change over from hand-drawn masterpieces to multiple revisions of average work has taken a toll on the creativity of the industry. Average subdivisions are being output by average engineering departments on a daily basis, pushed by the whims of a client and a push for more detailed designs with higher accuracy at an earlier stage of design, to satisfy the departments and municipalities that nothing could go wrong, as if that were really a possibility!

Planners are often at the front end of design, and are having to get caught up in technology, as the detailed design process gets driven further and further to the front end, at the conceptual stage.

Plan It Autodesk

Land planners need to effectively communicate their design intent in a digital environment without losing the creativity afforded them by their colored pencils and trace paper. After nearly 30 years of PC-based drawing automation this issue remains as one of the clear dividing lines between artist and engineer.

subdivisionSo what do you do as an Engineer or designer? Can you be proud of how drawings look as well as the content they contain? Many clients today need drawings to convey some emotion, either to convince non-technical staff in municipalities, or even as a type of sales plan to prospective buyers. Traditionally, planners have done these conceptual drawings by hand, and many still do. Is Autocad being adopted for this purpose in your business? In a couple of days I’m going to review some software by Autodesk that may be the answer for many professionals wanting the “hand-drawn” look for some drawings, but with a truly technical basis for the design.

On another note from the same link above, technology as seen in this short video may be the solution, (advertisement runs for a few seconds first). With massive improvements in graphics, speed and intuitive whole of body navigation, many tasks relegated to the desktop can now be performed at the wall level.

After viewing the video, do you see any benefit in this technology for your workflow, design, CAD and GIS processes? I can see things might be a bit more fun and interactive, maybe this is how people felt when they could move a mouse around the screen for the first time.

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