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Transforming communities

March 12, 2009


A blue house in the middle of a neighborhood.

Researchers say that with good design, communities have the power to turn transportation projects into long-term community investments.

Photo: Dawn Endico, Flickr Creative Commons

U research finds that well-designed transportation projects can help entire community

By Megan Tsai

Just a decade ago, visitors to the East St. Louis, Illinois, neighborhood of Emerson Park were greeted by vacant homes, broken streetlights, and a 25 percent unemployment rate. The suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, was a classic example of urban decline. Once a thriving area, the neighborhood gradually lost population and tax base as factories and businesses moved elsewhere, leaving behind abandoned buildings and industrial pollution.

Today, large pockets of the once-dilapidated neighborhood have been successfully redeveloped. Many area residents now live in one of the 300 new low- and moderate-income housing units, including the first private housing development built in three decades. Children enjoy the neighborhood's new playground, and grown-ups have an affordable way to travel to jobs in the city.

The changes are a result of Emerson Park's new light-rail transit station and some highly involved community members. When initial plans for a light-rail extension bypassed the neighborhood, the community spoke up. They advocated for a station in their neighborhood—and won. The new Emerson Park station and the surrounding area have become the hub of the neighborhood's redevelopment success.

More than transportation

Why do some projects, like the Emerson Park station, do more than just increase mobility? And how can other transportation projects create similar benefits such as promoting economic growth, improving health, protecting the environment, creating great places, increasing civic participation, and making communities safer? Those questions are exactly what an interdisciplinary group of researchers set out to tackle in "Moving Communities Forward," a research project requested by the U.S. Congress and conducted by the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) at the University of Minnesota for the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

"When we conceptualized the study Congress called for, we took the approach that good design requires the input of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines," says CTS director Robert Johns. "We wanted to make sure our research reflected this same principle, so we selected an interdisciplinary group of talented researchers. This allowed us to capture the full spectrum of design perspectives."

Researchers in landscape architecture, geography, urban planning, architecture, and civil engineering crisscrossed the country looking at a unique group of transportation case studies—projects that enhanced their communities in ways beyond increased mobility. They studied projects that seemed to promote economic development in both urban and suburban areas. They wanted to explore whether these projects actually created economic growth or simply transferred it from one place to another.

"Some land development under way in one place may simply be development that would have occurred at another place with no net gain to the overall community," says John S. Adams, a University of Minnesota geography professor. "On the other hand, if a transportation facility brings underused resources into more effective use, such as connecting unemployed or underemployed workers to job opportunities, it can lead to economic growth."

The research team also examined transportation projects that enhanced the health and environment in their surrounding communities. These innovative projects included a greenway overpass allowing animals, pedestrians, and cyclists to safely cross a Florida interstate and a cycle center in Chicago's Millennium Park providing showers, a bike repair shop, and parking for 300 bicycles.

Researchers studied environmentally sustainable buildings as well, including the Pentagon Metro Entrance Facility in Arlington, Virginia, and the Salt Lake City Intermodal Hub.

The transportation projects that succeeded in creating great places—places where people want to live, work and gather—all had one thing in common: good design. But as the researchers discovered, defining good design is a challenge because the process varies from community to community.

"The design processes are tailored to community issues; one size does not fit all," says Lance Neckar, University of Minnesota landscape architecture professor. "However, in every case, the coordination over a long period of time—sometimes decades—between planners and designers was necessary to create a community-wide impact."

Involving community members in the early planning stages of project design not only creates a better final project, researchers found it also increases civic pride and enhances community engagement. The projects that successfully involved their communities had similarities: they engaged the community, used many methods of participation, involved political and community leaders, used visualizations such as sketches and computer renderings, included design experts in the early planning stages, and maintained a clear sense of the desired outcomes.

Finally, researchers examined how transportation projects could increase safety. They found that by using safety audits and including safety experts in the design process, safety improvements, especially for pedestrians, could be achieved. Communities planning transportation projects should also consider "before and after" safety audits to determine whether safety improvements were realized.

Turning projects into principles

The research team studied dozens of transportation projects designed to address individual community needs in a variety of settings. Despite the wide range of projects, the study authors found common themes in the reasons for each project's success. They turned these themes into six design keys communities can use to create transportation projects that accomplish more than simply improving mobility. These principles are:

* Use an integrated design process in which planners, designers, transportation officials, and builders develop a unified plan.
* Include all community stakeholders from the start of the project.
* Use three- and four-dimensional images and graphics to increase citizen involvement, understanding, and buy-in.
* Create human-scaled structures and spaces to make busy transportation hubs more manageable.
* Use easy-to-read signs and directions to make navigating complicated multimodal systems easier and safer.
* Design projects to be both durable and adaptable to new transportation modes and community needs.

Putting principles into action

Interest in repairing and rebuilding the country's infrastructure is increasing rapidly. Researchers say this interest makes using the study's design principles more important now than ever before. With good design, communities have the power to turn transportation projects into long-term community investments.

"This study is a guidepost for what makes investments in transportation really work for communities," says Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal relations for the American Institute of Architects. "It's something we can bring to Congress and the new Obama administration and say, 'These are some of the things you can do to make sure money is spent wisely.'"

However, the ability of these projects to enhance communities is not guaranteed.

"[They have] that potential, but [there's] not necessarily a built-in positive transformational effect unless you have people that really take hold of the idea of good design and work towards it," says Neckar.

In the future, the "Moving Communities Forward" researchers hope their work accomplishes exactly what the study's name implies: helping communities create transportation projects that do more than get users from Point A to Point B.

For more information, visit Moving Communities Forward.