What do the economic crisis, the environment, extreme commutes, fluctuating fuel costs, and Gen-Y/Millennial influence have in common? According to urban planner Douglas McCoach, vice president of Planning and Urban Design at RTKL, a worldwide architecture, engineering, planning, and creative services organization, they are all central to President-elect Obama’s 2009-2012 agenda. As we prepare for the first urban presidency in decades, he says, there are major changes afoot in urban planning and infrastructure. McCoach, himself a former big city planning director, says U.S. towns, metropolitan areas, and "edge cities" can expect to see major changes during the next four years.
McCoach expects the following major changes:
Urban president, suburban gain—Barack Obama is the first truly urban president that this country has sent to the White House since John F. Kennedy came to Washington from Boston. As such, some people may assume that Obama’s infrastructure plan will mostly benefit the largest cities. On the contrary, suburbs and small towns may have the most to gain. While big cities will see some revival, McCoach says, it is really the perimeter suburban and ex-urban areas surrounding America’s large cities that stand to gain the most from new infrastructure funding. Tired of long commutes and keen on sustainability and community, suburban citizens have already expressed interest in transforming their areas into densified microcities by building town squares and mixed-use spaces and incorporating public transportation. Obama’s support of community and connectivity offers a great opportunity for these microcities to evolve more rapidly across the country.
Transformation through transit—During the last few decades, U.S. commuters have shunned rail in favor of superhighways. As a result, America’s infrastructure includes a vast network of abandoned rail rights-of-way that offer the potential to regionally reconnect cities and suburbs. Today, there is growing momentum around putting more resources and focus into the transit oriented design (TOD) principles that are the backbone of our evolving smaller cities and suburban or small town downtowns. According to McCoach, by developing areas around rail systems, trolleys, subways, and more, downtown areas become more livable, walkable, sustainable, and community oriented. Obama’s infrastructure plan should explore the necessary funding to revive rail transit and consider other forms of public transportation that are better suited toward today’s needs, he says.
Clean up the old, bring in the new—Cities across the country are recognizing the untapped potential of redeveloped brownfield sites. The U.S. has hundreds of former industrial sites and buildings that are now obsolete, contaminated, or grossly inefficient, and many of these are in premier waterfront locations—prime areas of redevelopment. McCoach says it is important to consider cleaning up and re-using these sites and structures—from the ground up. Ultimately, huge benefits for everyone will be accrued from moving forward with cleanup, renovation, and adaptive re-use.
Revamp and integrate schools and public buildings—America’s inventory of public buildings has suffered from decades of neglect. These schools, community buildings, parks, and recreation facilities are the center of our communities and a vital link between public and private interests. Obama has pledged to focus a portion of the infrastructure budget on modernizing schools and public buildings to both reinvigorate use and aesthetics, while making them energy efficient. Taking this plan a step further, through good urban planning, McCoach says there is also a great opportunity to position these buildings as the focal points of their communities, rather than outlying properties.