Jan 19 2011

Water Resources 101

Today I attended a seminar sponsored by USGBC northern chapter about water resources. For me, who isn’t entirely knowledgeable about water resources, and more importantly, water law, I found it very informative for the lay person. Water law in Colorado is very complex, and to the lay person, it doesn’t seem to follow logical sense. For example, their are senior water rights, junior water rights, and the fact that you can’t collect rainwater and store it to water your garden, because that water is technically owned by someone else. Colorado Water Law is unique in this nation. Basically, Colorado Water Law is based on the concept of first in time, first in line. This goes all the way back to the gold rush days in Colorado. There are established water rights going back to the 1860’s.

Where it gets really interesting is ditch water versus well water, municipal water versus agriculture water. Until the 1960’s (and my dates could be a little fuzzy), those farmers that drilled wells could irrigate no matter what, even if the neighboring farm with ditch did not have enough water to irrigate. It is was finally decided that wells could impact downstream water flows, and so well water became subject to the same first in time, first in line law.  All was pretty much well and good until 2002 when the most severe drought this state has seen hit. That is when the state had 3,000 wells or so shut down to preserve the senior water rights. It is also the year when Aurora came within 7 days of running out of water.

While the drought ended, it did get everyone to start talking about a long term game plan to satisfy all users. Of course, so far it has been mostly fighting, lawsuits, engineers, etc. that is fighting the fight without any real meaningful discussion. Then there is the whole issue of municipalities buying up farms for the water rights and then drying up the farms to convert that water to municipal use. When that happens, then the farm land can no longer be irrigated, except for possibly with treated water. This has the obvious problem of taking prime farm land out of production, and therefor less food production. The other problem is most municipalities are building up the water supplies for drought conditions. One idea being floated around is to have municipalities create agreements with farmers for them to simply lease water from the farmers during drought years. This does not take the farms out of production (except in the worst of years) and the farmer still has income in those years. Seems like a win win to me.

Then there is the flip side of the whole debate, about getting municipal water users (meaning you and me) to get serious about conserving water in the first place. Most of the water that is used, is for landscaping, mostly turf grass. We need to get away from the idea that everything needs to be covered with turf grass. We need to use more dryland grasses, or other techniques to reduce water thirsty grasses, and only use them where they are used, such as in backyards.

What do you think? What are your ideas for dealing with the water issues?

Dec 16 2010

LEED for Neighborhood Development

LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND for short) is another in a series of rating systems published by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) that encourages green building and development. LEED ND is for new developments, primarily residential communities that when employed, requires such communities to incorporate sustainable and green building strategies for the entire community. This program is entirely voluntary, and it promotes many good ideas such as storm water management, reduction of impervious surfaces, preservation of existing trees and natural areas, solar orientation, walkability, multi-modal transporation, higher density and mixed uses. All this is good.

As with all of the USGBC rating systems, certain prerequisites have to be met, and this is where I start to have issues with LEED-ND in specific. The one prerequisite that I have the biggest issue with is the requirement that the minimum density be 7 units per acre. The theory behind this is that 7 units per acre is really the threshold where a mass transit system becomes feasible. That is all well and good. However, what this does, is it relegates this rating system to larger cities that not only have a mass transit system, but more importantly, where the market will support this kind of density. 7 units per acre is typically the lower end for townhome communities, and is extremely dense for single family detached homes. Don’t get me wrong, I support higher density, but also realize it isn’t for everyone.

But what really gets me, is there are thousands of smaller towns and communities across the country that the market simply can’t support this kind of density for anything more than a building or two. LEED ND therefor totally ignores these communities. I think this is wrong, we should encourage all communities to incorporate sustainable practices and green developments, not just large cities. Of course, this doesn’t prevent sustainable projects from being developed in any town or city, but it does prevent the national recognition that projects in big cities can achieve.

May 17 2010

Right Sizing Detroit

Detroit has ambitious plans to demolish up to 10,000 vacant and derelict structures this year, most of them likely to be homes. This represents about 1/10 of the estimated 90,000 such structures in Detroit. One of the more notable homes to be torn down is the historic home that used to be the boyhood home of Mitt Romney. Ironically, it is located in a posh neighborhood. From pictures I have seen, it looks like it was undergoing a serious remodeling that was simply abandoned some time ago. This has a few people up in arms simply because of its historic nature. Of course, Detroit has far bigger problems than this one house, but it does have some magnificent homes, both in good condition, and those abandoned.

Detroit is one of those cities that is getting serious about trying to match the physical size of the city with that actual population. Long term plans for the abandoned areas arn’t known yet. Detroits mayor has been quoted as saying as large portions of the city will need to be rebuilt from the ground up when the time comes. I believe it, if streets aren’t used, much less maintained, they fall apart pretty fast. Then there is the water, sewer, and other utilities that decay rapidly, particularly in a humid and wet location such as Detroit. Some areas will be used for urban farms, but I suspect mother nature and forests will take over other areas.

With the current economic crisis compounding the problem, approximately 30% of Detroit’s housing stock is sitting vacant. That is a staggering number. Before the economic upheaval, there was already significant rebuilding and redevelopment going on, working from the downtown area outwards. That has now stalled, but that concept is hardly unique to Detroit.

I find urban decay as fascinating as development and construction. Maybe even more so, watching how fast the built environment can disintegrate when abandoned. What do you all think?

Apr 24 2010

Downsizing Streets?

I have been participating in several workshops for the 5 year update to Fort Collins City Plan (the overall riding policies that among other things, drive land use decisions in the city). Tonight we had several group workshops. At one of the workshops that focused on transportation, I was introduced to a new concept in transportation called downsizing. The way it was originally worded I thought they were talking about abandoning streets, something that I don’t support locally, mostly because there arn’t many we can abandon. What the point was, at the current funding levels, the city can’t maintain the street network, and how do we prioritize maintenance, do we stop expanding the street network, etc.

However, this did get me to thinking about how do we downsize streets? I have a couple ideas.

1) We need to really think about where we need to build streets and where we don’t. This applies mostly to greenfield development, but not always. I have worked on many projects where we had to build streets that weren’t really needed all in the name of having easy street access to a building. Townhomes in particular can face greenbelts, they don’t need to face streets. This not only adds to the cost of development, but the city has to maintain those streets. Of course, I have been saying this for years.

2) There are plenty of streets in this city (and in most jurisdictions) that are simply too big. For example, my neighborhood is accessed by two collector streets spaced about a quarter mile apart. In Fort Collins, Collector streets have two wide travel lanes, bike lanes in each direction, and parking lanes. Both of the collectors by my neighborhood, there are no homes that directly front on these streets, there are parks (with plenty of off-street parking), natural areas, etc. The point is, both streets have a total of 16 feet (each) of asphalt that does not get used that has to be paved, snow plowed, etc. Maybe these parking lanes could be removed, with sustainable storm water and water quality built in these areas. Both of these street were built decades ago before the current street standards were adopted. There are examples of this all over. Of course, there are also streets that are severely undersized as well.

3) Create the flexible street types. In other words, rather than a one size fits all approach to street widths and carrying capacities, design streets to fit the context of the site they are in, and with the overall land use patterns. This would allow streets to be narrower in some locations, while in others the streets may need to be wider.

As with everything, sustainability is the word of the day, and that applies to our street network as well.

Apr 24 2010

Plan Fort Collins

The City of Fort Collins is undertaking two projects this year that will have an impact on the entire city, and on the east side-west side neighborhoods in particular. The first is the update to City Plan, the overall guiding document for landuse within Fort Collins. This project is being dubbed, Plan Fort Collins. You can get more information at the city’s website.

The other project that is being tackeled is studying the design guidelines for the Eastside Westside Neighborhoods. This excerpt is from the City’s website

“Eastside & Westside Neighborhoods Design Standards Study is a study aimed at addressing the impacts of residential development occurring in Fort Collins’ oldest downtown neighborhoods. Small houses are being expanded or replaced, resulting in new houses often significantly larger than the original. This type of development is commonly referred to as “pop-ups” (additions) and “scrape-offs” (demolition/replacements), and is a frequent topic of public discussion since the early 1990s.”

The focus on these projects is on development and redevelopment opportunities within the city. As the city quickly runs out of buildable greenfield sites, there will be more and more pressure to redevelop and so called infill projects. The question is not when or if, but rather how and where it will occur. A big challenge is creating compatibility between existing and new. There will be continued pressures in the old-town area, and significant pressure on the Mason Corridor, and the city is also looking heavily at the so called mid-town area, basically surrounding Foothills Mall.

One of the big things I have been harking on for the last couple of years, is the need for the city to identify areas of town that are appropriate for redevelopment, and those that arn’t. There are significant pressures to rebuild portions of Old Town. There are areas though were redevelopment should be restricted to preserve the character of the neighborhood and town. Old Town itself is a major community identifier for Fort Collins, and is a tourist draw of itself. Mountain Avenue is another of those those areas that has a unique character with a mix of stately and worked homes, wide median, and an historic trolley running the length of the street. Then there areas that are more appropriate for redevelopment, such as Luarel Street across from Colorado State University.

Community dialogue needs to happen to help shape the future direction of not only Fort Collins, but communities across the country. As it becomes less feasible to develop greenfield sites, cities will start to rebuild with higher densities, higher structures, etc. I am in full support of this, but it must be done carefully with careful attention paid to the details of architecture, site planning, space creation, and creating public and private spaces.