Saturday, May 5, 2007

Brookline's T.O.D. perfect for Sustainability

Through the good fortunes of history North Brookline has a land development pattern that in contemporary planning parlance would be touted as Transit Oriented Development. It was the simple fact that much of our building occurred before the 1920's and the dominance of the automobile that dictated a pattern of concentrated development accessible by foot and rapid transit. The idea of T.O.D. today is to build nodes of density within easy walking distance of transit stops in order to minimize our reliance on the automobile. Ideally these nodes would include a variety of land use types to add further trip synergies, such as offices, convenience stores, frequently used services etc. These are not new ideas, but in the face of the real and pressing need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to retool our domestic living arrangements for changing demographics, Brookline stands out as an example of a community with much of the basic structure in place for moving forward towards the sustainable community of the future.

Urban planners around the world are struggling to craft municipal codes that would allow builders to retrofit our sprawling, land and resource wasting suburban environments into nodes of mixed-use density. Most municipal zoning ordinances would not allow traditional town centers or denser transit oriented nodes to be built today. These codes focused on separation of land uses, thus prohibiting the mix of uses that foster street life. Large lots and setbacks set buildings far apart, using up vast tracks of land and in a commercial setting making access via automobile the only option. Concentrating development near transit has the added advantage of leaving valuable open lands for preservation or farming, uses that benefit the public to a much greater extent than do 5 acre private lawns or asphalt parking lots. The planning and zoning tools of the past are primitive and left us with minimal protections, leaving communities vulnerable to the results of short term financial decision making, with little or no regard for context, long term use or the resulting public spaces. In addition to the wholesale reworking of our antiquated zoning codes, planners are becoming aware of the need to address the nuances of designing the public spaces, or as the title of one of my favorite books puts it "The Spaces between Buildings", which are in fact impacted by every design detail of both the adjacent buildings and the other streetscape elements.

A reawakened public and the municipal officials that represent them are coming to understand that they must speak up and ask for the kind of quality development that will be an asset to their community for the long term. Additional requirements are not necessarily a negative for developers. What is a negative is ambiguity. When developers make proposals that the community finds unsatisfactory, the community may try to stall and are reluctant to give their approval, but if they cannot clearly state their objections or preferences everyone is frustrated. Clarity, foreknowledge of expectations and even handed application to all proposals would be welcome by developers. We deserve quality development that makes sense for the long term goals of our community and we have a right to ask for them.

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