Planning Cities With People-oriented Design

people-oriented city planningWe’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 Cities

Many 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 Development

Transit-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 Transportation

A 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 Usage  

In 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 Neighborhoods

We 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 Management

Public 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

Norwalk's Industrial ZonesIndustrial 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 Results

Out 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
A second group, representing about two-thirds of participants, had more of an anti-industry attitude. Many in this group expressed a desire to see industry be placed elsewhere in Fairfield County, and many pointed to the noise and harm  that industry causes to residential neighbors.  Their opinions included:
  • 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
Despite the gap in opinions on industrial zones in general, there were areas of consensus across both of the groups. Whether pro-industry or anti-industry, there was wide agreement on:
  • 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 Steps

Based 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?
With these in mind, the committee will undergo further planning analysis to develop urban design scenarios related to the various zones.

For a full discussion, watch the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee Special Meeting, 1-12-2021

  Read more about Norwalk's Industrial Zone Planning Effort

Reassessing Industrial Zones In Norwalk

industrial zonesNorwalk 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 Norwalk

According 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 Zones  

Norwalk’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

anchor institutions_hospitalsThere 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 Partners 

As 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 Community

Institutions 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 Engagement

Anchor 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.  

Artistic Crosswalks

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.

What Are Artistic Crosswalks?

Artistic crosswalks are exactly as the term implies, crosswalks that are not your run-of-the-mill white lines, but include color, patterns, and even textures. They can be designed to reflect the special character of a neighborhood, mark the gateway to a district, or create local identity and pride. 

Pros and Cons of Artistic Crosswalks

In addition to promoting art and being fun, these crosswalks raise awareness of pedestrian safety. They are more noticeable to pedestrians and drivers, often having the side effect of slowing down traffic in the area. Some proponents also say artistic crosswalks offer public health benefits making roads more pedestrian-friendly. By creating more welcoming spaces, they encourage people to get out and walk or bike. Critics offer caution, however, saying that the artwork can be distracting or confusing to motorists. In fact, federal guidelines for crosswalks are very specific, with exact specifications for white line size and spacing, even the type of reflective paint to be used. Some cities have removed colorful crosswalks after the Federal Highway Administration deemed them distracting to drivers.

Norwalk, CT and Artistic Crosswalks

The City of Norwalk has a relatively new artistic crosswalk program developed by the Transportation, Mobility and Parking Department with stated guidelines. The city recently approved one at West Avenue and Connecticut Avenue in front of Mathews Park that will be painted in rainbow colors. The idea was proposed by the Triangle Community Center. The crosswalk not only represents the LGBTQ community but also Norwalk’s diversity and inclusivity as it is located across from Heritage Wall which celebrates Norwalk’s diversity, representing the gateway to Norwalk.  Norwalk’s Artistic Crosswalk program ties into the efforts of the Citywide Plan by creating neighborhood identity and placemaking as part of the investment into economic and community development.  This installation was a true community collaboration, bringing together the City, The Triangle Community Center, the Norwalk Green Association, the Norwalk Bike Walk Commission, the Norwalk Historical Commission and the Norwalk Historical Society If you or your organization would like to propose one for Norwalk, Click Here for more information.

The Benefits of Mixed-Use Development

New development to update and renew buildings and parcels are a part of life in a city that wants to remain vital. In the last few decades, cities have put emphasis on encouraging mixed-use development, combining many types of uses in a space, from residential to cultural and commercial. But what exactly is mixed-use development and what are the benefits for a city and its residents?

At its core, mixed-use development is just that: urban development that includes a number of different uses. When developing a piece of land, cities no longer want a large parcel of just offices or a large apartment building.The goal is more pedestrian-friendly development that combines residential/multifamily, retail, office and restaurant components. The idea is that this kind of development produces synergies in the use of the land, creating more of a walkable community that not only is good for the economy but also for residents and employees, as well as a destination for visitors to the neighborhood.

How Mixed-Use Development Benefits Residents and Tenants

People who live in cities want to have amenities close by. In a mixed-use development, they’re able to walk from their apartments and go to a restaurant, cafe or retail store, right at the bottom of their building or next door. Being able to walk to the things they want to purchase or experience saves them the costs of having a car to go everywhere, and with fewer cars on the road, the environment benefits. Public spaces are also incorporated into these developments, encouraging people to get outside and interact with other residents - fostering a sense of community. Similarly for people that work in office buildings in a mixed-use space, there are convenient places to eat, shop and relax during their lunch hour or after work.

Benefits of Mixed-Use to Developers and Investors

For developers and investors, mixed-use development because there are a variety of uses and tenants to these developments, this provides investors with diversification with regards to risk. There is no single, large tenant whose vacancy could negatively impact them. Certainly, there are a number of concerns that must be worked through such as parking and density regulations, so it’s important for developers to work with city planners as well as neighborhood groups early, as well. But by integrating a number of types of products, investors and developers will create destinations that will attract tenants of many kinds.

Mixed Use Development In Norwalk

Here in Norwalk, CT, the Waypointe development on West Avenue is a great example of mixed-use development. Included with apartments are dining and shopping establishments right downstairs. The development also has attractive public space and is within walking distance of the cultural attractions such as the Wall Street Theater, the Norwalk Public Library, the Lockwood Mathews Mansion, and Stepping Stones Museums, as well as other restaurants. For cities, mixed-use development, integrating corporate, retail, entertainment, restaurants and residential, can encourage private investment, support business, promote tourism and increase tax revenue given the increased density. But the ultimate benefit and goal for a city is to help transform neighborhoods into destinations that bring residents, tenants and visitors to an area to live, work, shop and play.

Transforming Retail in Norwalk

Sono Collection | Norwalk Tomorrow Norwalk has many types of retail spaces, from walkable city streets to strip malls and large big box stores. As Norwalk watches the new SoNo Collection mall rise off West Avenue and Interstate 95, it’s clear that it will impact the retail environment in the city. It’s a good time to consider the changing face and of malls in the country and how Norwalk’s new mall will fit in that trend. Developers of the SoNo Collection envision it as an upscale regional shopping center, housing 700,000+ square feet of retail, including anchor tenants Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, as well as 80-100 smaller retailers such as J. Jill, Sephora, and Chicos. Despite the pending arrival of new shops in town, we increasingly hear about the boom in internet shopping affecting brick and mortar stores and malls. According to Coresight Research, 5,862 stores closed their doors in 2018, while only 3,239 new stores opened. As for malls, the forecast looks as grim. Credit Suisse estimates that 20% to 25% of malls are likely to close over the next five years due to store closures. Because of this seemingly poor outlook, malls are faced with the need to change their offerings. The mall of the future may look very different from today. The trend is to make malls more like “city centers” with destination-type, experiential entertainment venues such as gyms, more food options and hotels, in addition to traditional retail. The new Hudson Yards Mall in New York City is an example of this new model. In addition to a wide variety of retail shops from high-end luxury such as Tiffany’s, to the more affordable, like H&M, Hudson Yards has many food options. You can find small craft coffee shops to restaurants run by celebrity chefs and everything in between. But what really distinguishes this mall, is the other multi-use options. There is 3DEN billed as a space to unwind where you can take a nap, meditate, even shower. Hudson Yards mall is right next to new hi-rise apartments as well as offices housing large companies like CNN and SAP. Equinox gym is opening up right next store, along with the first Equinox hotel.

Location of the SoNo Collection Mall

Sono Collection Mall | Norwalk Tomorrow Back in Norwalk, we can see the start of this mixed-use model in the SoNo Collection. As of spring 2019, the new mall is set to include Yard House sports bar, as well as Pinstripes, a dining and entertainment venue. Pinstripes includes bowling, a bistro and bocce courts all in one.The SoNo Collection Pinstripes will allow shoppers to view the bowling alleys, and the restaurant will include outdoor patio seating and bocce courts overlooking the water. Plans also include large areas devoted to public spaces such as a sculpture garden, a rooftop garden, and possibly museum and education space. There was a time when teenagers went to the mall and stayed for hours. Today, malls are working to encourage people to use the malls as destinations again - to come and stay, but not just for the shopping. The new SoNo Collection is following that trend.

What’s In The Wall Street-West Avenue Plan

The Wall Street and West Avenue neighborhoods have seen tremendous growth and change over the last decade. The area has many assets including historic structures, waterfront buildings, and a number of anchor institutions such as Norwalk Hospital, Norwalk Public Library, and the Wall Street Theater. A recently approved plan for the neighborhood (seen in the map below) by the City of Norwalk was conceived with help from area residents, businesses, and other stakeholders. The plan outlines a development path to the goal of a healthy and vibrant urban core neighborhood with a strong economy, driven by innovation and collaboration that is accessible, authentic, lively, and affordable for residents and businesses. Below is a summary of the plan and some of its recommendations.

Opportunity Sites for Redevelopment

Central to realizing the vision for the future of the Wall Street-West Avenue neighborhood, is for the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the City of Norwalk to focus attention and resources on specific opportunity sites that can serve as catalysts for broader community development. These sites, identified by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, were chosen based on several factors including development potential, land area (50,000 square feet or more), and location on one of the neighborhood’s primary commercial corridors of West Avenue or Wall Street. The sites include
  • 370 West Avenue (former YMCA site)
  • West Avenue between Merwin and Chapel Streets
  • Wall Street, West Avenue, Leonard & Commerce Street site
  • Wall Street between High & Main Streets
  • Library and adjacent sites

Development Considerations

Below are some of the plan recommendations that will help to promote development in the Wall Street/West Avenue area:

Zoning Changes

The plan emphasizes the need for more flexible zoning regulations to reoccupy ground floor spaces and to create sensible growth within the Wall-West area. Zoning for the area is undergoing the approval process and is expected to be approved by May 2019.

Parks and Open Spaces

The plan emphasizes the expansion or addition of parks and open spaces. Just five percent of the neighborhood’s land area is dedicated as park/open space including Mathews Park, Union Park, Freese Park, the Norwalk River Valley Trail, and the Harbor Loop Trail. More open space can be achieved by encouraging, requiring, or incentivizing the creation of privately owned green, public spaces as part of new development projects as well as through the creation of parklets within public rights of way.

Waterfront Access

Waterfront improvements are envisioned in order to take advantage of one of the area’s most prominent assets. Over the past several years, there has been significant development on the northeastern side of Norwalk’s harbor as well as expansion of public access to the waterfront via the Harbor Loop Trail. On the east side of the river, the Norwalk River Esplanade extends north from I-95 to Head of Harbor, providing residents and visitors with a pedestrian and bicycle connection along the river’s edge. On the western side of the river, however, public waterfront access is limited. This waterfront area is largely an active industrial and commercial corridor and the railroad line that runs parallel to the river creates a physical barrier between these properties and the Wall Street-West Avenue neighborhood and there are there are no public waterfront access easements.

Transit Connectivity

Enhancing transit connectivity between the Wall Street-West Avenue neighborhood, employment centers within the City of Norwalk, and the greater Norwalk region is essential to economic development of the Wall Street-West Avenue area. One of the area’s key assets is its urban character and walkability- which is attractive to neighborhood residents and businesses. However, transit connectivity between the neighborhood and the South Norwalk train station should be considered and evaluated with the overall goal of providing a direct transit connection between with the South Norwalk train station and as well as increasing transit access to major employment hubs, including the Merritt 7 office park and Norwalk Hospital. Read About Micro-Transit in Norwalk One important factor to the success of the Wall Street/West Ave. Plan is coordinated planning and implementation between agencies, departments, institutions, developers, businesses and other community stakeholder groups. The city and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency will track progress of the plan’s recommendations and work with various city departments to achieve the goals and vision of the plan. Read the Full Wall Street-West Avenue Plan

Final Wall Street-West Avenue Neighborhood Plan

Wall Street/West Avenue Draft Plan