Preserving Norwalk’s Trees: Norwalk, CT's Street Canopy Project
Trees provide habitats and improve the air we breathe. They help mitigate storm water, give us shade and project a sense of calmness in the world. Trees beautify both suburban and urban areas and can help reduce the heat island effect. Many states and cities are looking at ways to protect their trees by coming up with a more enlightened approach to preserving current trees and planting new ones. The question is, how can cities continue to develop and maintain the tree cover in the process? In Norwalk’s Citywide Plan, the City is tasked with protecting the natural environment. This entails not only protecting the open spaces and parks, but also its urban forestry by balancing growth and preservation. Allocating roadside space to street trees and landscaping helps improve the aesthetics of the streetscape, provides a buffer between the roadway and sidewalk to improve pedestrian comfort, and can facilitate stormwater management through bioretention features such as planters and swales. Below we take a look at how Norwalk, CT is working to enhance its tree canopy with a tree ordinance and other actions.
Missing Middle Housing and How It Benefits Cities and Towns
From attracting talented professionals to lowering living costs and allowing for mixed-use development, missing middle housing addresses many issues and alleviates some pressing challenges facing cities and towns today. Overall, missing middle housing encompasses a broad range of dwelling types. In general, these are buildings with multiple units located in easily walkable neighborhoods. For many cities, these can be workable solutions to existing residential neighborhoods. Moreover, they are affordable to low- and middle-income residents, addressing the housing crisis. Keep reading to learn more about missing middle housing and how it benefits cities and their residents.
What Is Missing Middle Housing?Broadly speaking, the missing middle is composed of diverse housing types that fall into the category between single family dwellings and larger apartment buildings with many units. Missing middle units are similar in scale to single-family homes, addressing space limitations. They include duplexes, multiplexes, cottage courts, and townhomes. These types of dwellings allow for urban areas that are less dense, more walkable, and offer more open spaces.
Why Is Missing Middle Housing Needed?Currently, there is a growing gap between upcoming demographics and available housing options. If missing middle housing were built, it would offer an affordable alternative. Those who work in the city could purchase property, build equity-based wealth, and still live affordably. In addition to greater affordability, missing middle housing also addresses housing demand. Since many aspiring homeowners are priced out of the market, they must keep renting for years. Likewise, the available options for low-priced housing tend to be farther away from urban centers with little access to public transportation. This mismatch between the demand and city-based options is substantial. Moreover, smaller multi-unit dwellings support walkability and keep spending in the local economy. By creating housing options in urban spaces, consumers can utilize public transportation more effectively. Thus, residents would save on transportation expenses and build equity in their new homes.
Who Benefits the Most From Missing Middle Housing?Those looking for moderate or lower-priced housing would benefit from missing middle housing. These types of multi-unit housing use existing space more efficiently, reducing cost per square foot. Additionally, many creative professionals are not interested in traditional living. As a result, they are willing to live with simplified or downsized amenities. For example, many are looking for a car-free lifestyle, which is impossible in the suburbs. Empty-nesters looking to downsize after their children have left home can benefit from smaller space and reduced expenses. At the moment, these populations often do not have effective options available in cities and larger towns. Missing middle housing options can help to ensure that low and moderate income residents of a city can find affordable housing and remain there where they are close to transportation, jobs and other benefits of urban living.
What is Norwalk Doing to Address Missing Middle Housing?Norwalk is currently evaluating its accessory dwelling unit regulations to potentially allow more flexibility in how these units are developed. In addition, as part of the comprehensive rewrite of the zoning regulations, the City is considering freeing up certain portions of the smaller-lot, single-family zones, to allow for 2-family dwellings.
Norwalk, CT Holds Charrette on Revising Its Building Zone Regulations
This fall, the City of Norwalk held a charrette focused on rewriting and modernizing its building zone regulations which lasted over the course of five days. A charrette is a collaborative planning process that involves all stakeholders and this one was open virtually to the public.Norwalk embarked on a building zone regulation update following its ten-year Citywide Plan in 2019. One of the Plan’s recommendations was to take a fresh look at the city’s zoning regulations, which have not been thoroughly reviewed nor revised in 30 years. The charrette was part of a greater public outreach process to educate local citizens on the zoning code and get their input and feedback on what works and what needs to be changed.
How the Virtual Charrette WorkedDuring the charrette, the community learned about the city’s current zoning regulations. In a series of online focus meetings, stakeholders shared their hopes and concerns about how the new regulations may affect things such as transportation, architecture and design, community character, land use, development, neighborhoods, housing, green infrastructure, sustainability, and most desirably its waterfront charm. For those who couldn’t make it to one of the meetings, an online virtual open studio was available for much of the day where people could join and ask questions, or share their thoughts on zoning. Another way the city was able to get input from the public during the charrette was through a virtual mapping workshop. Using an online tool, people were able to access a map of the city and add markers to indicate what they liked about the character of Norwalk and their thoughts on opportunities for improvement.
Findings from the CharretteAs mentioned in a report from The Norwalk Hour, “if one word was said more often than any other word this week, it was character. We heard from people wanting to maintain the marine character. Views of the water are important.” On the final evening of the virtual charrette, the planning team presented their findings and discussed how the community input is shaping the new Building Zone Regulations in several areas. Here are some of their findings.
HousingDuring the charrette, people asked for a greater variety of housing types in more locations. Allowing for multifamily and accessory dwelling units that fit into the character of single family neighborhoods. Part of this is an expressed need and desire for more affordable workforce housing.
Sustainability and the EnvironmentImportant to charrette attendees is the maintenance of the maritime character of the city, and the need to preserve water views. The protection of natural resources and the coastline is also a public concern. Attendees talked frequently about the need for green infrastructure such as permeable pavement, accessibility for bicycling and pedestrians, solar power, green roofs, and sustainable stormwater solutions.
Industry and the EconomyWhile open, green space and preserving the character of neighborhoods were important to charrette attendees, there was discussion about protecting some industrial zones. There was a call to look at other locations for these zones than where they are currently. The biggest concern with industrial zones was the need to address the contractor yards in these neighborhoods and adjacent to homes. There is a Norwalk Industrial Zones Study underway which is taking a look at these issues. Also of importance for attendees was protecting water dependent commercial uses while still allowing for public access to the water. Currently, the city is working on an Industrial Waterfront Land Use Plan to guide decisions on the best uses of Norwalk’s waterfront resources. Overall, the public wanted to retain, grow, and attract a wide range of businesses, allowing for various commercial building types that are more compatible in more areas.
Mobility and TransportationManaging all modes of transportation was a critical concern for attendees, especially making land use decisions that support and improve walking, biking, and public transit. Parking was brought up as having an impact on the character, walkability and desirability of the community. There were presentations on shifting parking lots to be hidden and interspersed among businesses as attendees expressed an interest in a review of parking standards.
Next Steps in the Zoning Regulations UpdateThe zoning regulations planning team is taking all the feedback from the charrette and drafting new regulations. The intention is to simplify what is now a complicated document, and consolidate some of the zoning districts. The overall policy will be to take a character-based approach to zoning. This means grouping zones together that are similar, and creating character districts where certain building types are appropriate for each district, while taking into consideration policies such as open space and commercial uses, etc. Residents, businesses and others in the community will have the opportunity to review and provide feedback to the draft, continuing the important public input to ensure the new regulations take into account all who live and work in Norwalk. To see videos from the Charrette Presentations CLICK HERE
Putting the “Walk” in Norwalk: Best Local Trails to Discover
The benefits of walking have been known for a long time. Whether to improve your health, stay in shape, enjoy the fresh air, or take advantage of your natural surroundings, walking is a great way to spend leisure time. Norwalk, CT has many beautiful places to walk, whether you’re looking for natural beauty or interested in more urban, historic sites.
Trails for Nature WalksWhether you’re an experienced hiker or just looking to get your heart rate up and get in touch with nature, there are plenty of green, open spaces to enjoy. Cranbury Park is a 227 acre park that offers several wooded trails plus a gorgeous view of the historic Gallaher Mansion. This picturesque setting makes it not only the perfect place to relax and enjoy the outdoors, but the 1.5 mile trail that runs along the river is perfect for walkers and their furry friends! Dog-friendly and absolutely stunning, make plans to visit Cranbury Park to see for yourself. An alternative with better views of the water, another bike and pedestrian-friendly trail to consider is Norwalk’s Harbor Loop Trail. An easy, moderately trafficked trek, you can always find back trails for a little more privacy. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash. Oyster Shell Park can be found near the Maritime Aquarium, but don’t let it’s urban setting fool you, this park gives you a view of the Norwalk Harbor and the Norwalk River. There’s a small parking lot, a fishing pier, and for walkers, there are several paved trails for a breazy, waterside stroll. For a scenic, oceanside option, there’s a 1.5 mile loop from Shady Beach to Calf Pasture that takes you out on the peninsula so you can really breathe in that saltwater air. With a stop by the Norwalk World War I Memorial and several restrooms along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to take in the sites or take a rest stop. Experience the beauty of the Long Island Sound on this easy walk. Sharing a start point at Calf Pasture Beach, the Norwalk River Valley Trail crosses Wilton, Ridgefield, and Redding—all the way to Rogers Park in Danbury. It’s an out and back trail through the Connecticut woods, featuring a ten foot wide, multi-use path that when fully completed will go on for 30 miles.
Discover Norwalk’s DowntownTo learn more about the downtown areas of Norwalk, CT and get some exercise, Discover Norwalk has put together a number of self-guided walking tours that bring you face-to-face with some of the city’s history. On these tours, you’ll discover Norwalk’s legacy of art, heritage, and culture, passing by landmarks such as City Hall, Mill Hill, Freese Park and the Norwalk Public Library. Another great resource for walkers was developed by the Norwalk Health Department. As part of their NorWALKer Program to encourage residents to be physically active, they developed a series of NorWALKer maps with more than 40 routes through 17 city neighborhoods. No matter if you’re walking to improve or maintain your health, boost your mood, or learn about your town, Norwalk residents have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to walking trails and routes. So get out there and enjoy!
The Best Features of Successful Public Spaces
It’s not easy to design a public space. There’s pressure to meet the expectations of everyone and people often have different tastes. Factoring in sustainability to aesthetics can further complicate the process. However, there are some basic key features in public spaces that can make them a desirable place to visit for everyone. Here’s a quick highlight of some successful public spaces and their best features around Norwalk, CT.
Multiple Uses of the SpaceDifferent activities attract different folks. Having multiple things to do—playgrounds, grills, park benches, sports courts, or grassy fields—will attract more visitors. The most important thing is that people can come to a public space and be able to take their minds off their day to day. Veteran’s Park and Marina is a good example of a public space that offers many options, from waterfront fields, including baseball diamonds, amazing outdoor artwork, boat slips and seemingly endless walking paths, plus so much more. When you visit, whether you’re coming off the water or i-95, you get to take in the scenic Norwalk Harbor, which makes it the perfect place for family fun, a romantic rendezvous, or a socially distanced get together.
Simple Works BestYou don't need to go over the top to create a place for people to enjoy. Walkways, bike trails, and places to sit and convene without fanfare are all wonderful placemaking tools. Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, which runs along the western side of the Norwalk River, is a prime example of simplicity in public space making. At Oyster Shell Park, there are a variety of walking paths and seating areas to take in the view of the River.
AccessibilityAnother major consideration to ensure that a public space is successful is to make sure it's accessible to everyone. The more people can get to and around the space safely, the more it will be used. The use of signage is important to make finding your way there easier, as well as from one place to another with the space. Providing handicap accessible pathways and features can allow those with disabilities and the elderly to enjoy the park fully.
Secure and SafeA major criteria for the success of any public space is for people to feel safe there. The space should include good lighting and well-maintained walkways and grounds. The city should keep the space clean and monitored by security so people feel free to gather without fear or worry. Placing trash receptacles throughout the space and making sure they are emptied regularly can make a space feel clean and comfortable for all users.
Green Spaces to Enjoy the OutdoorsSometimes there's nothing better than just enjoying the outdoors. Public spaces should have plenty of green space to do so. At Norwalk’s Calf Pasture and Shady Beach, one can simply sit on a beach in the sun all day long. But, in keeping with the multiple use criteria above, the variety of active spaces on site ensures that everyone can enjoy themselves. Along with plenty of passive open space, the following active open space amenities are available:
- Baseball/softball field
- Volleyball court
- Skate park
- Refreshing splash pad
- Picnic areas
- Basketball courts
- Concert area
- Food stands
Social ParticipationWhen designing a public space, one way to ensure it will be well used is to involve residents of the city throughout the planning process. Every community has different needs and desires for their public spaces. It’s essential to get feedback on the design and ideas on how to use the space from the community. Having public spaces that residents and visitors can enjoy is integral to a thriving, vital city. Norwalk’s 10-year Citywide Plan puts great emphasis on the City’s open spaces, seeing them as some of Norwalk’s greatest assets. The plan lays out an integrated approach to open space and recreation that will strengthen the public park system to serve all residents and enhance their environmental value. To read more, see Norwalk’s CityWide Plan on “Enhancing Open Space, Park, Trail & Recreation Systems” starting on page 115. CLICK HERE
Planning Cities With People-oriented Design
We’ve written about what makes cities livable and what people are looking for in a city. There are various urban planning approaches that put and keep people at the forefront. Designing a city so it is people oriented brings in two subjects we’ve covered, transit-oriented development (TOD) and designing public spaces to make them more bikeable, walkable and encourage community (also known as placemaking). Below we take a closer look at some of the factors that make up people-oriented urban design.
The Problem with Car-Centric CitiesMany cities have been designed or have grown organically to be “car-centric”, meaning they are centered around automobile uses and connectivity. Examples of this can include, large urban blocks, unsafe conditions for bicycling and walking, an emphasis on building roads and highways to make it easier to get into the city, little access or connection to or between public transportation, and few public spaces. Primarily promoting the use of cars can make a city less liveable, adding to traffic congestion, and air pollution - among other problems.
Transit-oriented DevelopmentTransit-oriented development is a type of urban planning that creates compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use (commercial and residential) communities within walking distance of high quality public transit systems. This kind of development incorporates living, working, retail and recreational spaces close together, and in close proximity to transportation systems. It is intrinsically built around the needs of people and neighborhoods. TOD fosters many benefits including increased economic activity, job opportunities, walkability and a sense of community.
Public TransportationA key component of TOD is good, accessible public transportation that is centered around the needs of residents and visitors. Making trips into and between city neighborhoods easy and making high quality modes of transportation efficient, should be key goals of a city. Ensuring that there are easy connections between various methods of public transportation, making clear up-to-date route information available, and providing dedicated lanes on city streets for public transportation can make public transportation more accessible for City residents and visitors.
Policies to Encourage Less Car UsageIn addition to making it easier and more compelling to take public transportation, cities can reduce the use of cars with a few strategies, as well. One method is congestion pricing, which is charging vehicles a fee for going into specific areas at certain times of the day. Parking restrictions can also be put into place. In terms of design, cities can narrow lanes, add bike lanes as well as add bike-share docking stations, put in more pedestrian crossings, temporarily replace parking spaces with parklets, and even set up car free zones. These strategies don’t take cars away from the equation entirely, but they prioritize people over cars.
Designing Walkable, Bikeable NeighborhoodsWe already mentioned some of the ways to make a city more walkable and bikeable such as car-free or car-reduced streets. Other ways to encourage pedestrians can be implemented via sidewalk design strategies. Making sidewalks wider, with no obstructions, makes them easier to walk on and can encourage their use as public spaces. Clear, wide sidewalks can be used for commercial activity, recreational uses, or public art. A city can better accommodate bikers with designated bike lanes that are separated from other vehicle street traffic and parked cars, as well as convenient and secure bike racks in public spaces.
Public Space ManagementPublic spaces are important to making a city people-friendly. Ensuring residents and visitors access to open public spaces to rest, exercise and congregate is essential for densely populated neighborhoods. The benefits are many, including both physical and mental health, along with fostering a sense of community. ocia Public spaces can be used for people to meet, play, and socialize! People-oriented city design is all about putting people and communities first, ahead of vehicles, streets, and other city infrastructure. In short, improving overall quality of life. By encouraging and supporting mixed use building, investing in quality public transportation options, making cities more walkable and bikeable, and providing inviting public spaces, cities can improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.
Surveying Norwalkers on Industrial Zones
Industrial zones have been integral parts of cities for decades, allowing certain areas to be designated for industrial and commercial use. Following the 2019-2029 Citywide Plan, Norwalk is assessing its industrial zones to see if these areas are still appropriate for industrial uses, as well as taking a look at how to better use these zones for economic diversification and growth. As part of this effort, the City recently conducted a survey for stakeholders across the City, including residents and business owners, to gauge their opinions about Norwalk’s industrial zones.
Industrial Zone Survey ResultsOut of a total of 434 respondents, two major opinion groups emerged, based on their votes and statements submitted. One group of about one-third of those who responded had generally a pro-industry stance, with strong support for additional industrial development across the City, as well as a healthy mix of both commercial and industrial uses. Their opinions were generally:
- More supportive of industrial growth, especially for job creation
- Support for a balance of land use
- Sensitive to the location of industrial uses and their relationship to residential neighborhoods
- Less support for industrial growth
- Norwalk should not bear the regional burden of industrial development
- Industry in Norwalk is not well located and should not be near residential areas
- Industry should respect the needs of its residential neighbors
- Traffic and infrastructure are serious issues in many of the zones
- There should be a clear distinction between heavy and light industry
- Waterfront is a valuable asset for the City that should be considered separately from the other industrial zones
Industrial Zone Planning - Next StepsBased on both the survey results and the above consensus points, the industrial zone planning team will look further into several questions that arose, including:
- While Norwalk is well positioned for a regional advantage with regard to industry, should it be the main industrial district for Fairfield County?
- What are emerging industrial trends and how should they inform the future of industrial development in Norwalk?
- How to balance the future of marine industrial and commercial uses with recreational uses such as boating and public access along the waterfront?
- How can Norwalk’s planning and policy mitigate conflicts between industrial uses and abutting residential and commercial areas?
For a full discussion, watch the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee Special Meeting, 1-12-2021Read more about Norwalk's Industrial Zone Planning Effort
Reassessing Industrial Zones In Norwalk
Norwalk is embarking on a study to review the city’s industrial zones, their current uses, and the city’s future needs. Since its beginnings, Norwalk has transformed from an important colonial seaport, to a major manufacturing center, and today is a city with both a diverse population and economy, from Fortune 500 companies, to high-tech manufacturing, and innovative start-up companies. By revisiting its industrial zoning, Norwalk hopes to use its remaining industrial parcels as key resources for creating job growth, and to further diversify its economy.
What is an Industrial Zone?Industrial zones are important components of city planning. An industrial zone is an area of a municipality that is designated to be used for industrial uses. These zones can benefit a city by boosting economic development, providing employment and investment in the area, and generating city revenues. For industrial zones to be beneficial, a city should have space for manufacturing that is suitable and affordable. This can be challenging in places where land values are high and there is significant demand for space for other uses such as residential or office buildings. Industrial zones also need to be located in areas that are accessible to transportation links, allowing employees to come and go and goods to be shipped. Having zones where manufacturing is clustered allows these businesses to operate freely without worrying about disturbing neighboring businesses or residents. Some schools of thought argue that having a diversity of industry near one another promotes both more industrial economic growth as well as development of the city’s surrounding area. The theory is that diversity provides opportunities for technological inter-fertilization of industries as well as innovation and entrepreneurship.
Industrial Zones in NorwalkAccording to Norwalk’s Zoning Regulations, the “primary purpose of industrial zones is to provide areas which permit manufacturing and related uses”. Heavy industrial uses are allowed by special permit. Examples of businesses in this area are any manufacturing that doesn’t involve noxious waste or overly loud noises. They can also include warehouses, package distribution facilities and places that sell or store building materials. The city also recognizes that while there’s a need for manufacturing space it needs to ensure that industrial zones are compatible with nearby residential neighborhoods and with the capacity of available infrastructure. Therefore, city regulations state that any plans for building a structure more than 20,000 square feet or with more than 50 parking spaces must include special permits. In keeping with the coexistence of residents and businesses, industrial zones in Norwalk can also include retail stores, offices, including medical offices, banks and financial institutions, other service establishments such as restaurants and taverns, as well as single- and two-family housing.
Examining Norwalk’s Industrial ZonesNorwalk’s study of its industrial zones will help it to make decisions about the city when planning for development. A goal of the study is to determine what Norwalk can do to foster industrial growth, including craft industries, and ensure that thriving businesses expand and/or remain in Norwalk. Among the key issues the study will look at is if all the areas that are zoned industrial currently are still appropriate for the neighborhoods. The study will also examine what other similar communities in the Northeast are doing to attract commercial and manufacturing companies, including new tech and green manufacturing. Conversely, the study will evaluate what might discourage industrial growth in Norwalk, including limitations or issues with regard to infrastructure (e.g. roadways, sanitation, energy, etc.). For industrial development to thrive, governments and private developers need to create sustainable, profitable conditions. Designated industrial zones with the infrastructure (both physical as well as technical), convenient location, and municipal and residential support can deliver jobs and economic growth. Norwalk’s reassessment of its industrial zones is a step in that direction.
The Importance of Anchor Institutions to a City
There is a lot of talk in city planning circles these days about anchor institutions in cities and towns. With the loss of manufacturing in smaller cities and towns, institutions like hospitals and universities have become more important factors in local economies, and partners to neighborhoods and municipalities. In fact, those two institutions alone employ eight percent of the U.S. labor force and account for more than seven percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Below we delve a little deeper into anchor institutions and how they can benefit their communities.
What Are Anchor Institutions?Anchor institutions are organizations that are established in communities and tied to them via place. Examples are libraries, hospitals, local community foundations, colleges and universities, and cultural organizations such as museums or arts centers. Anchor institutions can also be major employers in certain niches like science and design. Because of their longstanding establishment in a town or city, these places have an interest and investment in keeping their community vibrant. They contribute to their community via their employees, businesses they use as vendors, and relationships with neighbors and other organizations in the area. Because of their ties to their neighborhoods, towns, and regions, they are seen as key to its economic development, wellbeing, and cultural growth. The thinking is that they can be even more beneficial to their towns and cities via their intellectual resources, and economic and cultural power.
Economic PartnersAs some of the largest regional employers in a city, anchor institutions can benefit a city or town through its hiring and workforce development programs. Hiring local residents at decent, living wages and offering career building opportunities for local residents and employees can keep the area’s economy healthy. Working with and hiring locally-owned vendors promotes small and local businesses. Other ways anchor institutions can promote business development in the area include colleges and universities making use of their resources, such as faculty and students. By creating small business development centers to work in their regions they can help to build the capacity of local businesses. Area foundations and nonprofits too can create programs to work with local individuals and businesses to build their professional capacity. Colleges for example can also work with local school districts to create viable pipelines and pathways to skilled, high-paying jobs.
Promoting A Healthy CommunityInstitutions can do a number of things to impact the health of their neighborhoods and regions. They can work directly with the community via public health interventions. They can also make investments in factors that affect good health such as access to health care and health care information, access to healthy food and physical activity in local public schools, workforce wellness initiatives with local businesses, investment in safe and affordable housing, and by providing employment to local residents.
Community EngagementAnchor institutions need to engage with their local communities to maintain a partnership relationship. Universities can foster civic participation via discussions, lectures, workshops around adult education, politics, and the economy. Art institutions can support building a thriving arts and culture hub by supporting local artists and businesses, and partnering with local schools. Anchor Institutions can bring important benefits to local communities in which they are located by creating decent-paying jobs for residents, supporting local businesses and community-based entrepreneurship, promoting the arts, culture and health, and engaging residents in a variety of productive ways. In Norwalk, we have a number of anchor institutions, including Norwalk Hospital, Norwalk Community College and The Maritime Aquarium, for example. Anchor institutions are central to the implementation of the current Wall Street-West Avenue Redevelopment Plan. Because there are only a few traditional institutions in the area – Norwalk Hospital, Norwalk Public Library, Stepping Stones – non-traditional anchor institutions such as major employers like King Industries and Devine Brothers are also involved. These community strongholds continue to contribute to making Norwalk and surrounding towns a dynamic place to live and work.
You may have seen them in your city or town, brightly colored crosswalks, perhaps with an artistic design. If they’ve caught your eye, well… that’s the point! Artistic crosswalks are a playful, cost-efficient, and low-maintenance tool to highlight marked pedestrian crossings. They attract attention, while creating a sense of community.