Motorola Mobility–a unit of Google–announced today that they will be moving their headquarters from suburban Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.
The company was purchased by Google last May and will be moving 3000 jobs to the historic building.
From an urban development standpoint this move is instructive since the head of Motorola deliberately sited the urban environment as an advantage to their business given the new site’s ample crowds and public transit being a natural laboratory in which to observe how consumers interact with mobile technology.
From an urban planning standpoint it could be used as evidence that the dense, multi-modal environment that you get in a city is an amenity for business and economic growth. In addition, Motorola sees the urban setting as advantageous to recruit and retain good talent.
Suburbs like Libertyville simply can’t compete with the social and physical infrastructure of Chicago.
The New York Times continues its excellent series on US water pollution today with an article on the problems with municipal sewer systems.
The essence of the problem is that older cities like New York have antiquated systems and many newer cities have systems whose capacity is inadequate. During severe rains the systems can’t process all of the wastewater and consequently dump untreated sewage into lakes and rivers–often in violation of the Clean Water Act.
In areas with combined sewer systems, the problem is exacerbated since these systems route both wastewater and storm runoff to the pipes. In severe storms, backups can occur and raw sewage can flood basements and buildings.
The EPA gets criticized in the article for not enforcing the law and municipalities are consequently not penalized for their violations. Although EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has pledged to get tougher on violators, municipalities argue that the problems they face stem from a lack of resources and investment to improve systems that have been neglected. Fines would result in money simply going to the Feds that could otherwise be used to improve systems.
It seems that a good model would be to have aggressive federal action, but to place the focus on helping municipalities develop better ways to improve handling their capacity. For instance, municipalities could adopt stronger regulations on stormwater management for development or offer incentives for water mitigation techniques like green roofs or permeable pavement.
One subtext that doesn’t get explicitly mentioned in the article is climate change. A major problem with the municipalities discussed in the article is that they are seeing a rise in the number of 100- and 500- year flood events. This comports with climate change science that suggests more severe storms will occur as the planet gets hotter. Wastewater treatment, in turn, is generally very energy-intensive.
Thus one could envision that climate change legislation in the US could have adaptation money available for water system upgrades and for mitigation policies. Green roofs, for instance, decrease runoff and they also act as an insulator, improving a building’s energy efficiency; or substituting permeable pavement in a parking lot could both reduce urban heat island effect and reduce runoff.
It is important to recognize that water quality and climate variation are intimately related.
This example comes from the Daily Journal of Commerce in Portland, Oregon. The article, headlined “Can Street Layout Affect Residents’ Health,” talks specifically about the problem posed by emergency vehicles getting to residential destinations in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood.
Photo: Portland Ground, Pictures of Portland Oregon
I haven’t been to the neighborhood, but the article describes it as having typical post-war design–a street system lacking connectivity with plenty of cul-de-sacs and dead ends. This caused a problem recently when emergency vehicles couldn’t reach the scene of a shooting resulting in the death of a high school student.
New Urbanists and public safety departments have been at odds for years, with the latter insisting on wide residential roads and generous, rounded corners to accommodate large fire trucks. Planners aren’t excited about the ramifications this has for street life and the pedestrian experience. Streets become too wide, automobile traffic goes too fast, and sidewalks are sacrificed by developers to meet the zoning and infrastructure requirements for emergency vehicles.
The incident in Powellhurst-Gilbert suggests that old-style suburbia also has some problems.
In keeping with the study I referenced earlier, Powellhurst-Gilbert also was found to have issues relating to obesity that have been linked to the neighborhood’s urban design. What is hopeful from the article is that city officials are looking at ways to change policy and seem to have the support of neighbors–something that is often lacking in other urban and suburban contexts.
I don’t know the details about what is going on in Madison, but this article in the State-Journal caught my eye.
Apparently the city is engaged in a re-working of its zoning code with an emphasis on “environmental sustainability.” Among the changes being discussed in the latest draft:
- Reducing the minimum parking requirements for commercial buildings. One of the reasons you see a sea of asphalt surrounding your local Big Box retailer is because traditional zoning codes often require that a minimum proportion of the lot be dedicated to parking. New Urbanists have been arguing for years that zoning codes should include maximums, rather than minimums. Too much parking results in a degraded environment and an expectation that automobiles should be the primary mode of transport.
Photo of Madison: Jon Mallard
- Allowing for urban agriculture and gardening. According to the article, there will be no prohibition on the siting of community gardens and special permission could be granted for small scale agricultural projects. This is a nice effort to promote local sustainability and food security.
- Allows for “granny flats” to be built over garages. This is another New Urbanist staple. It diversifies the housing stock in neighborhoods, offers a bit of income to home owners, and can enhance affordability
The process of reform is ongoing, but if this article is any indication Madison appears to be on a positive track.