A few years ago, I went to Phoenix in July. The temperature downtown was 106 degrees in the shade. Walking from my hotel to the convention center was a sweaty, lonely experience. Nobody else seemed brave enough, or perhaps dumb enough, to venture into this kiln on foot.
Now Phoenix, like every other city, wants a vibrant and walkable downtown. But the city's leaders know they can't succeed unless they do something about the heat. In another era, or in Dubai perhaps, they might plot to build an enormous urban air conditioner. But Phoenix has its eye on a more fine-grained approach, what planners are calling the "connected oasis."
The idea is to cool off the sidewalks, block by block, by introducing street trees, shaded arcades, water features, and light-colored building and paving materials. According to Dyett & Bhatia, the city's consultants, these and other steps can reduce the "effective" temperature--what a pedestrian actually experiences on the street--by 35 percent. So instead of 106 degrees feeling like an unbearable 130, it might instead be made to feel like a tolerable 85.
Phoenix even thinks its zoning could help downtown cool off. The city is working on a new "form based" zoning code that will govern the shape of buildings and how they relate to the street. A goal of the new code is to space buildings in a way that lets desert breezes blow more freely between them. Says Dean Brennan, the Phoenix planner in charge of the project, "Even if we're not cooling the space, psychologically there's a sense that it's cooler."
Auto-oriented cities such as Charlotte, Denver and Salt Lake City are building new rail lines and lots of "transit-oriented development." But do people moving into new homes above the tracks actually drive any less?
No, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. Reporters staked out four newly built apartment and condo complexes near transit stations in the L.A. area. They interviewed residents, counted cars coming and going, and watched pedestrians. What they found was that most people continued driving their cars most of the time. Trains and buses were still too slow and didn't run where people said they needed to go.
Does this mean that transit-oriented development is a crock? No. But it does suggest that more functions of everyday life must be accessible and easy to reach by train or bus to make it work. Cities should be locating offices, schools and hospitals near transit, too-- not just lofts and coffee shops.
In Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and some of its environs, the municipal dominoes keep falling. In 2005, the wealthy northside community of Sandy Springs voted to incorporate. Then neighboring Milton and Johns Creek followed. This past June, 3,000 residents at the south end of the county formed a town called Chattahoochee Hill Country. Now, all that's left of unincorporated Fulton County is an area called South Fulton--and people there will vote on incorporation next month.
What's left for Fulton to do? That's a good question, and one that a study committee appointed by the Georgia legislature is digging into this summer. With all these new cities taking over responsibility for their own police, fire, planning and parks, Fulton is left with the core county jobs of administering health and human services and the courts--but without much of the revenue that sustained those operations. If there's a simple solution, nobody has come up with it yet.
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