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Another way to see the US: Map of where nobody lives

There are more than 300 million people living in the United States today, but America is such a huge country that we still have staggeringly vast areas that are completely devoid of humans. This map illustrates those places. Everything colored green is a census block with zero population.


Map by Nik Freeman of mapsbynik.com.

The eastern US is pretty well populated except for a few spots in mountains and swamps. But the west is a different story. It’s covered with enormous stretches of land that are simply empty.

And Alaska’s emptiness makes even the western contiguous states look densely populated. Those green areas near the Arctic Circle look bigger than most other states.


Map by Nik Freeman of mapsbynik.com.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 16th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: demographics, land use, maps



Why grids are better for walking, in 1 simple graphic

This graphic shows how much ground a pedestrian can cover walking along street sidewalks in a gridded Seattle neighborhood, versus a nearby suburb. Although both maps show a one-mile radius, there are far more destinations within that radius in the gridded neighborhood.

Seattle and Bellevue maps from sightline.org.

Both maps show neighborhoods that are primarily single-family detached houses: Greenwood, Seattle and Eastgate, Bellevue. But the similarities end there.

In Bellevue trips are indirect and circuitous. Not only are far more residential streets accessible in Seattle, but also more commercial streets (in purple on the map). Both neighborhoods have plenty of parks (shown in green).

Granted, the two maps appear to be at slightly different visual scales, population density is probably higher in Seattle, and pedestrians in Bellevue can probably cut through yards to get places a little faster. But the overall point remains true that far more destinations are within easy walking in Seattle, which – surprise – is why more people walk there.

For the record, the key isn’t a strict rectilinear grid; it’s interconnectivity. Boston’s medieval web of streets is just as good, and maybe even better. The real key variable is the density of intersections, not the straightness of streets.

February 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, maps, pedestrians, transportation, urbandesign



Silver Spring Transit Center is a terrible place for a park

click to enlarge
Don’t build a park here. Photo by obz3rv3r on flickr.

Dan Reed has a strong post up today on GGW reporting a proposal to build a park next to the Silver Spring Transit Center, and arguing why that’s a terrible idea.

Other Dan is completely right. Just to throw my support behind his sensible arguments:

  1. It’s not a pleasant place to be. Good urban parks need active streetscapes around them, with plenty of retail. The old Silver Spring turf worked well because it was at a location people wanted to hang out in. The transit center location on other other hand is surrounded by a parking garage, huge landscaped setbacks, blank walls, and loud, high-traffic highways next to which nobody wants to spend time. The edge conditions are awful. If you just built a park there the result would not be Dupont Circle. It would be this – dreary and dangerous.
  2. There are already parks directly across the street in two directions. One north at 2nd and Colesville, and the other east on the Wayne Avenue side of the Discovery Building. Granted the Discovery park is privately owned and is often fenced off, but getting Discovery to open it up more would be a vastly better and cheaper outcome than taking land next to the transit center. In any event, the other one is open all the time.
  3. Developing the site would actually produce a better park. Since parks should be in pleasant and active locations, good ones should be lined with pleasant buildings. The only way to line this site with pleasant buildings is to construct some pleasant buildings, and put a square in the middle. That’s a fine idea. Incidentally, that’s already the plan.
  4. A park would increase car traffic. Yes, it’s true. The best way to decrease car traffic is to put as much development as close to major transit stations as possible. Displacing the planned development adjacent to the transit center with a park would mean that development happens somewhere else, almost certainly somewhere less transit accessible and by extension more car-dependent.

Buying this valuable land and turning it into a park has absolutely no upside. It would be expensive and it would be a bad park and it would screw over the transportation network. Please, Montgomery County, waste no more time on this terrible, terrible idea.

PS: At Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, Richard Layman has an extensive discussion of Silver Spring park issues.

February 19th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, parks, urbandesign



Know what you’re watching: Map of Sochi’s Olympic Village

Sochi’s main Olympic Village is 20 miles southeast from downtown Sochi, near the city’s airport. It’s home to the athlete residences, stadiums for the indoor sports, a theme park, and a huge rail station. The venues for mountain sports are 35 miles inland, near Krasnaya Polyana.


Satellite view of Sochi’s Olympic Village. Original image from Google.

February 10th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, maps, parks



Want the urban lifestyle? DC’s best corner is…

Imagine a generic urbanist. Someone who loves walkable, transit-friendly, mixed-use cities. Without knowing where this hypothetical person works, where their friends live, or how much money they might have, what single DC street corner would be the most ideal place for him or her to live?

Put simply, what’s DC’s most livable urban address?


14th and P is the epicenter of everything. Image from Google.

The answer is 14th and P, NW.

There are thousands of great places to live all over the DC region, but to find the singular best corner, one has to apply some pretty strict criteria.

The ideal corner will be within easy walking distance of all 5 Metrorail lines. It will be on a major commercial main street, within one block of a supermarket. It will have bikeshare access, and it will be near a wide variety of shopping and dining amenities. There will be a park nearby, but it need not be quite as close as the supermarket.

The Metrorail requirement eliminates everything but Downtown and the southern end of Dupont & Logan. The Capitol Hills and Columbia Heights of the world are wonderful, but comparatively less well-connected.

The major grocers in that area include the Safeway at 5th and L, the new Giant at O Street Market, the Safeway at 17th and Corcoran, and the Whole Foods at 14th and P.

5th Street and O Street have fewer other amenities nearby. Chinatown is close, but not right there. They’re less desirable than the other two.

Corcoran Street has all the amenities, but it’s on the very outer edge of walkable from the Orange & Blue Lines.

That leaves P Street. It’s at the middle of all 5 Metro lines, on 3 major bus routes, has a bikeshare station, and is within a block of the best cycletrack in the city. It has a grocery store, a CVS, a hardware store, and tons of restaurants right there. Logan Circle park is a block away. All the riches of the 14th Street corridor are in easy reach. It’s perfect.

And that’s why 14th and P is the city’s most livable urban corner. Others are nice, others may be better for you given your circumstances, but 14th and P is the prime address.

But what do you think?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

December 12th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, question



9 suggestions to change the height limit

Congress is considering whether or not to change DC’s height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.


Paris’ La Defense skyline. Photo by KJ Vogelius on flickr.

Much of the debate about the height limit has settled into two opposing camps, those who want taller buildings, and those opposed to any change. But it doesn’t need to be so black and white.

Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington’s unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.

That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.

1. Don’t eliminate, calibrate

Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn’t anyone’s proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it’s worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.

2. Target development where we want it

Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.

The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.

No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There’s no reason the height limit can’t be used in the same way. We can be selective.

3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown

Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.

But under current rules, developers often can’t justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.

4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places

We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that’s where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don’t empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.

Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it’s also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.

5. Be inclusive of affordable housing

Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They’re both right, but those points aren’t mutually exclusive.

New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.

But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn’t a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation’s affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn’t build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don’t build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.

In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.

6. Require good architecture

Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC’s architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.

But there’s no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.

That sounds cumbersome, but it’s standard practice in many cities, and DC already does it in some neighborhoods.

A city the size of DC wouldn’t want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there’s no good reason DC can’t do it for tall ones.

Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.

7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances

Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they’re boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.

This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It’s not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it’s that Rosslyn’s buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.

While it’s not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25′ the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.

This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it’s a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.

8. Outlaw surface parking lots

Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they’re common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.

Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.

This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what’s now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.

Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.

9. Protect the iconic monuments

Development economics are important, but they’re not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we’re not going to put skyscrapers there. DC’s skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world’s most iconic, and should of course be preserved.

But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn’t impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.

We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they’re most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 30th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, urbandesign



Vienna Metro town center won’t have a town center

Outside of Tysons Corner, Vienna MetroWest is Fairfax County’s greatest experiment yet in transit oriented development. But now it appears developers have scaled back, and may build car-oriented retail instead.


Original plan (left), and current plan (right). Images from Clark Realty and Paraclete Realty.

MetroWest was initially approved in 2006 after years of debate as a dense, walkable town center adjacent to Vienna Metro station. It was Fairfax County’s first big smart growth win.

With construction of the residential sections underway, the town center seemed close to finally, finally happening. But now that it’s time to actually start leasing spaces, the town center development plan looks a lot different.

Instead of dense, walkable midrises, the are single-story retail buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. Instead of an urban town center, it’s a glorified strip mall. What happened?

One can speculate. A recession hit, competing developments at nearby Dunn Loring Metro opened first, and the market changed.

Developers do often build single-story retail as a “temporary” placeholder until they’re ready for more intense uses. That was the idea behind the Kentlands town center in Gaithersburg, which is now redeveloping parcel by parcel. But “temporary” in this case can mean 20 years.

For people who bought homes at MetroWest based on the promise of a strong town center nearby, the potential of something better years in the future is little consolation.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 14th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, land use



Watch 28 years of Virginia sprawl

Google’s global 1984-2012 satellite timelapse shows remarkable growth in Northern Virginia. Take a look.


Westphalia master plan.

The most striking change is vast land development in Loudoun County, but that’s not the only visible growth. You can also see expansion of Tysons Corner (lower right), construction of the Dulles Greenway toll road, the airport’s new western runway, and at the very end, construction of the Beltway HOT lanes.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 4th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, maps



China’s amazing farmland suburbia

The Yangtze River valley between Shanghai and Nanjing is one of China’s densest and most heavily populated regions. It’s also one of its most agriculturally rich. Just like in America, sprawl claims much of the land between cities in the megapolis, but unlike America, the sprawl is happening in a way that preserves much of the land as functioning farms.

This aerial shows how walking along one of those streets, one might never know the neighborhood is primarily farmland.

More pictures.


From google maps.

May 8th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, preservation



Supplementary reading on the DC height limit

click to enlarge
Paris and its Tour Montparnasse.
Image by Sean Marshall on flickr.

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about raising DC’s building height limit. Today that discussion moved into the realm of official policy-making, as Congress announced it will study the issue. Any change to the height limit would need Congressional sign-off.

In general I think the height limit should be raised subtly, in key places for key reasons, based on careful planning. I’m in favor of using taller buildings to incentivize more development where we want it, but don’t think it would be wise to simply eliminate the limit completely.

That’s sounds simple, but the issue is pretty complex. Here are some key points, with links to more expanded discussion:

  • Uptowns: Raising the limit in places like Anacostia and Tenleytown would encourage them to develop as uptowns, like Arlington and Bethesda.
  • Negatives: Raising the limit in downtown DC would increase pressure to tear down historic buildings, and decrease the pressure to fill in parking lots and other underused properties.
  • Tall =/= dense: Counterintuitively, midrise development is often more dense than skyscrapers.
  • Residential bonus: Giving developers a height bonus in exchange for building apartments instead of office would increase the vitality of downtown.
  • Do it, but carefully: We should raise the height limit with a scalpel, not a hatchet.
  • Trade-offs: Despite economic advantages, there are non-economic trade-offs about raising the height limit that we can’t ignore.
  • Be practical:: We should consider how to realistically improve the city’s regulations, not stake out dogmatic extremes.

November 8th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, land use, master planning, preservation, urbandesign



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