That was the question last night at a forum held at the Beacon Institute’s Center for Environmental Innovovation and Education on Denning’s Point. The short answer, in my view, is No. The long answer is more ambiguous.
The evening was hosted by the Hudson Valley Smart Growth Alliance, in the form of Jolanda Jansen, a civil engineer and recent graduate of Pace law school. She opened the evening with a brief overview of the rebuilding efforts of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, which sustained massive damage in a February 2011 earthquake. While not TOD-specific, it was used as an example of how to approach rebuilding a city in the 21st century. TODs are certainly an attempt to reshape, renew, re-imagine and rebuild our cities.
The following speaker was Harvey Flad, emeritus professor of Geology at Vassar College and co-author of the book Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in the City of Poughkeepsie. His talk ended up being the bulk of the evening, and focused on how Poughkeepsie developed into a vibrant, succcessful city, was then slowly enervated by technical and cultural forces that were changing the entire country. In a sorely misguided attempt to save the patient, urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s all but delivered the final death blow.
Which brings me to my short answer: Are not TODs just the latest quick fix version of urban renewal?
I’m not saying we haven’t learned anything from the mistakes of the past. There are now many flavors of urbanism and urban planning concepts–new urbanism, everyday urbanism, post urbanism, sustainable urbanism, smart growth, complete streets, and TODS, to name a few. TODs may be seen as a corrective to many of the ills wrought by sprawl development patterns and overdependance on automobiles, and the core concepts guiding TODs are sound–higher residential densities; less reliance on cars, with more bikeable and walkable layouts and easy access to public transit; a mix of work, live, play, shop. Social justice issues are also now in the mix with some TOD planning.
So what’s not to like? Well, there are pitfalls. First, there is the issue of real estate developers and other interested parties co-opting the term and applying it to large development projects that happen to be near transit. This is often referred to as Transit-Adjacent Development, though not by the marketers for the developers proposing such projects.
What’s the difference between TADs and TODs? Well, one of the main objectives of TOD is to curtail the use of cars. In small to medium sized cities that have lost local transit options like trolleys or railroad spur lines, and don’t have an intercity bus or shuttle service, this objective can be extremely difficult to achieve. Once you lose the single occupancy vehicle reduction, many of the other objectives start to degrade. For instance, how can you make bicycling and walking more attractive when auto traffic has been increased?
A second problem is scale. Not just the scale of the actual build out—number and density of units, amount of commercial and retail space, parking requirements, demands on existing infrastructure–but the scale of the developers and agencies that undertake these projects. When you have 300 or 600 units going up, who collects those rents or sales? Does the money stay in the community? Does a mega transit agency really always have the best interest of a community as its bottom line? How does the relatively instant nature of these developments differ from the more organic growth of cities in the past? There are likely negatives as well as positives to plopping down a fully realized plan into an existing city layout. Again, the top-down kind of planning that was a hallmark of the urban renewal era hasn’t changed all that much, even with the inclusion of a few public hearings and input sessions. The expression Too Big To Fail has become popular to describe the monolithic banking entities dominating our financial landscape. Perhaps many of our agencies and their best laid plans are Too Big To Succeed.
Finally, continuing with the idea of appropriate scale, we have the issues facing the world today, from climate change to our corrupt financial and political systems, from peak oil to our unhealthy food chain. Yes, TODs in part are designed to address some of these shortcomings. But implementing the concepts often relies too heavily on these faulty foundations, and on a growth-oriented, GDP mindset. Like urban renewal, it perhaps does not take enough of a look at the possible futures we face, or a look further into the past, at the problems urban renewal itself was designed to address–the steady erosion of both the commercial and manufacturing bases of our cities.
Rebuilding local economies is the way forward. As this work takes hold, TODs will (re-)emerge, creating a sense of place, a living scale neighborhood. But a plan superimposed over a city does not have much likelihood of true long-term success if the economic drivers are not in place. In this case, it’s not build it and they will come, it’s putting the cart before the horse.
Hudson Valley Green will look at these issues, along with local and national TOD examples, more closely in future posts.