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Turning out the lights

When I first moved to St. Louis, I thought that there were a lot of street lights here. After living here for a few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our high level is a result of a combination of older, dimmer lights simply being replaced with newer, brighter head units and an assumption that brighter street lighting is a deterrent to crime.

I’ve also been exposed to the edges of the “Dark Skies” movement, where people are very concerned about light pollution. Places like the big island of Hawaii and Tempe, Arizona, have enacted strict restrictions on exterior lighting, so people can see the stars at night. Daytona Beach has restrictions along the Atlantic Ocean, to protect the nesting areas of sea turtles. Given the recent economic challenges, Santa Rosa, CA, is eliminating nearly half of their street lights. “The city boasts that it will cut its carbon footprint. What really matters, though, is money.”

The truth, like many things, is probably somewhere in between. For security purposes, you just need to be able to see if someone is lurking or up to no good, you don’t need to be able to do surgery. Brighter is not always better – if you have a “glare bomb” of a gas station, then yes, everyone else around them needs to be incrementally brighter than they would be otherwise, just because of the extreme contrast. At the other extreme, on a clear night with a full moon, in areas without streetlights, even though the actual light level is very low, because it’s not concentrated, both people and things are readily discernible.

Which gets back to St. Louis. We have budget issues and we have crime issues. According to the city’s website, we have more than 80,000 streetlights. We even have a history of being the leaders in the use of electric lighting. The question, now, is whether or not we should maintain the status quo? Or, if we should see is we can save some money without increasing crime rates. The city’s budget includes ±$4.3 million for the Traffic & Lighting Division and its 33 employees, which works out to $67 per light.  If we were safely able to eliminate 10% of our existing streetlights, we’d be able to save more than a half million dollars annually and we’d be reducing our carbon footprint.  It all gets back to perception versus reality.  Are you willing to see reduced street lighting in St. Louis, both to save tax dollars and to be a bit more environmentally conscious?  Or is the pervasive fear of crime, in too many parts of town, enough justification to maintain, or expand, existing lighting levels?

– Jim Zavist


Transportation and the Urban Form

The host of this site, Steve Patterson, and I are both passionate about urban design issues. One area where we differ is how the interaction between transportation options and the urban form plays out in the real world. Steve, and others, believe that requiring “better”, more appropriate and/or more restrictive design standards, through efforts like moving to form-based zoning and reducing available parking, will somehow convince the uninformed public to become more enlightened and to change their ways.  I have a different perspective, that available transportation options inform the urban form, including our land use regulations and their application on a daily basis.

I’m not going to go back to the discovery of the wheel, but I am going to go back 150 years.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution / the American Civil War, transportation options were limited to human, animal, water or wind power – you could walk or row, ride a horse or a mule, use a sailboat or “go with the flow”.  The result was a world made up of farms, relatively small settlements, seaports, river ports and a few larger centers of banking, trade and government.  There was no zoning, as we know it, but we did have our westward expansion, with land being given away for free to anyone willing to “tame the wilderness”, through farming, ranching or mining.

Cities were just starting to build rudimentary water supply and sewer systems, and elevators and air conditioning were non-existent.  You got an urban environment marked by row houses, small, local retail establishments and tiny signs.  You didn’t have drive-throughs or dry cleaners, computers or gas stations; you did have hitching posts and coal for heat, telegraph and manure in the streets, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim.  You can find many preserved examples up and down the east coast, including Colonial Williamsburg.  And St. Louis started to grow as the Gateway to the West, primarily as a trading center and a transportation hub.  Examples around here include Soulard, Carondelet and Baden

The ability to capture the power of steam, through the boiler and the steam engine gave us railroads, cable cars and steam heat.  It also gave us the ability to run machinery with something other than water power, greatly expanding where factories could be located and how much they could produce.  More importantly, electricity was staring to be harnessed, with major improvements in generation, lighting and motors.  From the 1850’s through the 1890’s, city life changed rapidly.  Factories, along with their need for lots of workers, worked better in urban settings than in rural ones.  Cities like St. Louis became industrial centers as well as trading centers.

Quoting from a story in the 12/13/09 edition of the Daytona Beach News-Journal;

According to the Web site trolleystop.com, the first successful trolley system in the United States began operation in Richmond, Va. in 1887.  After the initial success in Richmond, almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power.  The electric trolleys became so popular that the street railway industry experienced explosive growth almost overnight.  As the popularity of automobiles and buses boomed in the 1920s, however, most trolley companies began converting their lines to bus service.

That was certainly the case here.  We had multiple streetcar companies competing for riders and we saw explosive growth of streetcar suburbs, both inside and outside the city limits.

Streetcars and buses allowed workers to live further away from work.  You still needed to walk to the transit line, but it meant living within walking distance of your job was no longer an essential requirement.  People had more options, and many of those, that could afford to, moved out of the older, denser parts of town, leaving them to new waves of immigrants or to see them torn down and replaced by factories.  Retailers were still expected to offer home delivery, so stay-at-home moms (yes it’s a stereotype, but it was the reality) shopped for fresh food pretty much every day and kids walked or biked to neighborhood schools.  This was also the time when the first attempts at zoning started to occur, primarily to separate industrial uses from residential ones.

The next big “step forward” was Henry Ford’s efforts to produce an affordable automobile.  His success, in the 1920’s, was the next big step in the suburbanization of America and St. Louis.  Throughout south city one can find garages that are too small for many contemporary vehicles – they were built to shelter the vehicle that expanded Dad’s transportation options, Ford’s Model T.  The residential neighborhoods of that time were still walkable (with sidewalks) and they still had corner groceries, but they were growing less dense.

The next big impact on the urban environment was World War II, both directly and indirectly.  Factories moved from multi-story to single-story, sprawling structures.  The internal combustion engine became more reliable and synthetic rubber made tires much less of a pain in the a**.  Women entered the work force in large numbers and pent-up demand for consumer products continued to build.

Once the war ended, we experienced several decades of unprecedented prosperity, from the mid ’40’s through the ’70’s.  We built the interstate highway system and moms learned to drive.  FHA and VA loans favored single-family homes, primarily new, suburban ones, over denser, multi-family options.  We went from single-car families to 2-car families.  We embraced the suburban shopping center and the enclosed mall.

Just because it was a whole lot easier, people chose driving themselves over taking public transit.  They chose living in the new suburbs over living in established urban areas, especially those that had experienced decades of deferred maintenance (the Great Depression followed by wartime rationing).  Employers, schools and retailers all responded by offering more and more “free” parking, either by planning for it from the start, in new suburban developments, or by buying up and tearing down existing buildings in more-established urban areas.  This mobility also resulted in the Euclidean zoning that many of us are questioning today – it codified a preference for convenient parking over both density and walkability.

The end result is the world we live in today.  It reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans, as reflected by the actions of our elected officials.  We trade sprawl and congested highways for the “freedom” to live where we want, work where we can find jobs and to shop at generic chains who have mastered the worldwide logistics supply chain.  We have seen St. Louis lose both population and jobs.  And we have two choices – we can continue to become more suburban, building more shopping centers, single-family homes and “free” parking.  Or we can redirect our efforts, differentiate ourselves from our suburban neighbors, encourage density and create viable transportation alternatives.

To attract people out of their cars and trucks won’t be easy.  There’s a real attraction to privacy, control and convenience.  But, as a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, I find it interesting that more members of the Generation Y are willing to embrace mass transit.  It turns out that people who text, tweet and surf the mobile net would actually rather let someone else do the driving, IF they can figure out how to make it work.  Whether that involves reinventing Metro’s system and creating a market for higher densities or developing a taxi infrastructure that mimics that in New York, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a another significant change in how people want to live, work and commute.  Combine that with the growing success of, and the reliance many people have on, online shopping, and in many ways we’re returning to the “home delivery” model of yore.

Steve’s belief in the need for form-based zoning could very well be reflected in actual change, just not one driven by direct logic and/or nostalgia.  I doubt that we’ll see the imminent demise of the suburban shopping center or the type of store Schnuck’s or Direbergs typically builds.  But I can see a future where Transit Oriented Development will gain traction on both the residential side and on the employment/educational side – it’s actually slowly playing out here locally at the Barnes campus on Kingshighway.  The single-occupant vehicle could very well become an anachronism for the daily commute, saved only for shopping, recreation and regional out-of-town trips.  Whether it ends up being garaged for days at a time or rented only when needed will be a personal decision.  But these decisions will inform what “sells”, and in turn, what gets built, and ultimately, what our legislators will see a need to codify.

– Jim Zavist


Locating Rec Centers

The City of St. Louis is building two new large ($20 million + each) recreation centers, one just completed in Carondelet Park (map), on the south side, and one just getting started in O’Fallon Park (map), on the north side.  As is typical of rec centers of this type, it turns out that access for people who won’t be driving seems to be both an afterthought and a real challenge. Bigger picture, this really shouldn’t be a surprise. There are three primary reasons. One, the majority of the users, especially the adult ones, WILL drive. Two, siting rec centers is a function of both budget and protecting departmental turf. And three, large rec centers, rightfully, generate the same NIMBY responses from many residential neighborhoods as many big-box retail developments – they operate long hours in large structures that generate a lot of traffic.

Parking at new Carondelet Rec Center, photo by Steve Patterson
Parking at new Carondelet Rec Center, photo by Steve Patterson

When it comes to building new, modern, larger rec centers, rarely are there “enough” funds to do everything one would want to include, so the first decision is usually to locate the rec center in a park; after all, the land is/would be “free”, there is no specific line item for land acquisition. In reality, it’s never free. One, parkland is a finite resource, with multiple demands from multiple user groups to accommodate their programs. Land dedicated to a rec center and its parking lots can’t be used for, for example, soccer fields or Frisbee golf. And two, like any other greenfield development, utilities need to be extended from the park boundary into the site. Since these are large, multi-million dollar public investments, there’s also a tendency to want to make them monuments, and what better place to put one, where it will remain visible, for decades.

Both of these centers are/will be prominently located, visible from neighboring interstate highways (I-70 on the north, I-55 on the south). While this may be good for the civic and political egos, as well as for marketing their programs, it means that both utilities and pedestrians will need to travel a lot further from any park boundary to reach them, to say nothing of the physical barrier the highway creates. There’s also an assumption that there is a need to connect rec center activities with other park uses and facilities. In reality, there’s rarely little, if any, interaction among uses, although a few staff members may end up multi-tasking. For example, the locker rooms used for the gym and the pool don’t get used by softball players or picnickers, and home runs hit over the outfield fence don’t interact well with either the outdoor pool deck or a parking lot full of parked cars. Still there’s an inherent desire in any department to protect turf – if they give up a program, that can mean a reduction in both staffing and budget.

In the case of the new Carondelet Rec Center, the nearest bus stop is on South Grand, at Holly Hills Avenue, approximately 3 blocks from the rec center’s front door. Getting there, as a pedestrian, is possible – there is a sidewalk, but one that follows a circuitous route, first south on Grand to Holly Hills Drive, then east across an ancient (and non-ADA-compliant) bridge over the railroad tracks, then south along the east side of the new parking lot. It looks good, and somewhat “easy”, but if you’re riding the bus, because you’re young or disabled or just don’t want to drive, 3 blocks is still 3 blocks, especially when compared to all the free, at-the-door, parking offered to those who drive.

North entrance to park, no way into park for pedestrians
North entrance to park, no pedestrians access to rec center at left. Photo by Steve Patterson

With the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, I would’ve preferred to have seen both rec centers sited much closer to a major public street, and potentially located closer to the population centers of both sides of town. I also would have had no problem locating them outside a park, on land already under the control of the St. Louis Development Corporation. When I was researching both sites, I made the mistaken assumption that the north center was being located on the southwest corner of Taylor and Broadway, behind Metro’s North Broadway Metro Bus Center; there was dirt being moved on what appeared to be an ideal, and very-accessible, site. It turns out that, much like on the south side, that the north side rec center will be located near the center of O’Fallon Park:


And no, this isn’t unique to St. Louis. Whether it’s Richmond Heights or Des Peres, St. Peters or Fenton, Kirkwood or Chesterfield, most new rec centers end up being located in recreation complexes, ideally suited for the proverbial soccer moms (and dads) and their mini-vans, but not so much for even local kids on their bikes.  To move away from an auto-centric urban environment, we need to be doing more of what Clayton has done, either consciously or by coincidence, and less of what St. Louis and too many other suburban cities have done and continue to do.

The just opened rec center on the South side is operated by the YMCA as the Carondelet YMCA.

– Jim Zavist


Reducing food waste from cities

November 28, 2009 Environment 3 Comments

No matter how much you ate Thursday, you probably had uneaten food remaining. Some of you will save and eventually eat what was left.  Much of the food will be tossed into the trash.  Tucked into the trash bag it is out of sight out of mind.  Your trash will get collected and sent off to a land-fill where the food will give off gases as it decomposes.  Waste from cities is a growing problem – more people live in cities (vs rural) and population is on the rise. We must learn to better manage our lives so the amount of waste we produce is significantly reduced.

I recently saw a TV report on a group in New York City collecting food left on restaurant plates to help feed those who are hungry.  Such an effort takes many individuals and coordination to pickup and deliver the food before it spoils. Others advocate re-plating the food so it goes back out again.  While that may be a bit extreme it hopefully gets you thinking about just how much edible food gets wasted daily.

Here are some tips I personally try to follow:

Eating Out:

  • Order smaller portions — only what you can eat.
  • Order dishes to share at your table.  Can two share one entree? Two dishes among three? Tip: can leave room for dessert.
  • Take home extra food from restaurants.  I’ve taken home extra salmon to use cold on a salad the next day.
  • Divide your plate before you start eating.  We’ve all been to places where the portions are ridiculously large.  A weight loss technique can be helpful here — when your plate arrives pull out your container you brought along and fill it with extra food leaving what you think is a reasonable sized dinner.
  • Ask others at your table if they want any food you are not going to eat.  They may want it now or packaged to take home for themselves or a pet.


  • Buy only what you can eat before it goes bad. I used to be bad about buying more food than I could eat.  If you buy too much, can or freeze part.
  • Learn to use leftover food in new dishes.  This might be food in the doggie bag or extras from the night before.  Where do you think stuffing came from?  It was a use for stale bread.  Many dishes were created as ways to use an ingredient that was a bit past its prime.  Veggies & meat can be used to make stock for soup.  Some suggestions here.

The bonus to doing the above is you also save money.  Add your suggestions below.

– Steve Patterson


South Grand: From the Gilded Age to “Great Street”

South Ground has always been a great street. In the early days it boasted a streetcar line, Tower Grove Park, an active business district, and the mansions of The Gilded Age. It left good bones for redevelopment a century later and has opened the door to a new era as a “Great Street.”

South Grand

In 2005, the East-West Gateway organization began spearheading an urban-planning movement called “Great Streets” in the St. Louis area. “Great Street” ideas hope to re-invent life in the city by taking a holistic view to neighborhood streetscapes. It is, in some ways, a backward-looking movement that hopes to bring back some of the chaotic diversity of earlier street life to modern ways of living.

It eschews our mid-century fascination with the car and focuses again on the street as home to all whether on foot, bike, bus or car. It also wants to achieve something more than integrated transportation; it wants to underline the cultural context of a neighborhood and to reflect the community’s deep historical roots in hopes of crafting a unique cultural identity to stimulate social and economic development.

Starting in early September 2009, the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway began an experiment to demonstrate how those infrastructure changes might affect life on South Grand. They re-striped Grand from Arsenal to Utah Streets into a three-lane configuration with concrete barriers to simulate future bulb build-outs at the end of city blocks. Public meetings before, during and afterwards captured neighborhood assessments on the changes.

Tuesday October 6 was the final public meeting on the pilot project and East-West Gateway shared data from the experiment and initial designs with the community. Probably the most visible change has been the decrease in vehicle speeds through the business district. Before the three-lane experiment began, car speeds on the then four-lane road averaged 42 mph. Traffic slowed to 31-32 mph during the three-lane experiment.

The difference is palpable either on foot or in a car. More than half of the residents attending the meeting said pedestrian safety was either improved or greatly improved under the new configuration and 69% experienced street crossings as easier or safer.

The slower speeds did not result in greater congestion. Data collected during the trial show a modest 3%-4% decrease in congestion in the area and there was positive feedback from emergency services in that they were able to use the third lane, the turn lane, to quickly navigate the area during emergency calls, an improvement to fighting four lanes of traffic with no dedicated lane.

Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.

The third major change was a reduction in street noise during the pilot. Forty-six percent of residents noted a reduced or greatly reduced level of noise and data collected confirmed a 17-decibel drop in high-end noise.

The pilot has thus proven to be a success in terms of calming traffic, reducing noise, and making the zone friendlier and safer for pedestrians. But what about enhancing the character of the neighborhood or enhanced economic activity? No data was presented by East-West Gateway and perhaps there are too many external factors like the prolonged recession to make any accurate determinations.

I can say, and this should please the street’s merchants, that 37% of the residents reported an improved or greatly improved shopping and dining experience during the “Great Streets” pilot. The slower speeds on South Grand do allow a better look at the shops and restaurants and the friendlier street atmosphere is likely to translate to more walkers and bikers dropping in to check them out.

So what’s next? The institutional recommendation will be made to continue the pilot, temporary concrete barriers and all, until construction can begin in mid-2010. In the meantime, East-West Gateway will continue to collect data and investigate outstanding issues like whether permanently closing the alleys that open on South Grand between Arsenal and Utah will work for residents, merchants and city utility crews. Design work will also continue along with the selection of materials and street trees. Also undecided is whether there will be dedicated bike lanes on a shared bike-car lane through the pilot area. Further consultation with the bicycling community is promised.

Since the proposed “Great Streets” improvements for South Grand are in the $8-$9 million range and only $3 million is available in U.S. federal stimulus funds, the vision being constructed in 2010 will be limited in scope. The budget will allow a permanent reconfiguration of the roadway to three lanes, widening of the sidewalks by three feet, building the bulbs at the end of each block to set off parking spaces from the roadway, and installation of new pedestrian crossing areas at intersections. Special attention will be paid to ADA curb cuts and bringing the project beyond code for ADA modifications. There will also be funds to plant more street trees and replace street lighting with more energy-efficient and effective fixtures.

An effort is being made in the design process to incorporate established neighborhood design icons into the new designs for bike racks, benches, newspaper box corrals, and neighborhood signage. Picking up the wrought-iron, Gilded Age designs from the fencing on either side of the Tower Grove garden gates and the neighborhood signs for Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, the new amenities will reinforce the neighborhood’s unique design heritage.
Compton Heights

Several issues remain up in the air. Two local schools founded in the Gilded Age, Gallaudet School for the Deaf and the Missouri School for the Blind, have requested that audible signals be added to traffic lights so their students can safely cross at the South Grand business-district intersections. Green, LEED-standard materials for paving options, bioswales to deal with street water run-off, and lighting fixtures that meet requirements for night-sky preservation are all under consideration, but haven’t been locked down.

To the extent that this project succeeds, credit should be given to the credible public-engagement process for this project.  Two initial workshops were used to identify problems in the area in 2007 and 2008; three extensive public open houses were held in August, September and October to determine design options, establish neighborhood preferences, and provide data from the pilot. Extensive displays, multiple meeting times and venues, printed materials, online surveys, and extended live question-and-answer sessions with keycard voting on options were all used to present ideas and receive feedback. At Tuesday’s meeting, 85% of residents found the process to be transparent and 74% felt the most important problems on South Grand had been addressed.

Project planners had a few surprises. One was the support expressed at public meetings to not just meet, but exceed, current ADA standards for access to the area as a business and social hub. Two was the public preference for LEED-compliant materials for paving, including pervious pavement. And three was support for street lighting that would meet neighborhood needs for safety, yet not be overly lit, so the area could meet improved energy efficiency standards and protect the night skies from unnecessary light pollution.

– Deborah Moulton