Neighborhood design, the foreclosure crisis and the death of Trayvon Martin

Neighborhood design?  Is she nuts?  What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin?  Isn’t his death related to race, guns and stand your ground laws?  My reaction when I saw the headline in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  But after reading Zach Youngerman’s op-ed, it all became clear.

PUBLIC OPINION about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., shifts every time new evidence emerges, as though each of them had a fixed character that could be revealed as easily as a video recording can be enhanced. But behavior is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting. Less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work, and the subdivision where the killing took place is designed for driving, so something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even.

“It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about,’’ Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher during his first exchange. Martin was in front of the clubhouse at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He may have been looking for a sidewalk.

Depending on which way Martin entered the subdivision, he would have found at the clubhouse either a rare length of sidewalk merging into a parking lot or leading away into a sort of jogging path encircling an artificial lake. If Martin chose simply to cross the street from the corner where he was, he would have been forced to transgress in the most literal sense. The 30-foot street (enough for two driving lanes and one parking lane on Mass. Ave. [in Boston or Cambridge]) doesn’t have a painted crosswalk. Probably because the other side only has private lawns and driveways.

Most of the Retreat at Twin Lakes lacks a conventional sidewalk – a public pedestrian thoroughfare parallel to vehicle traffic but protected by a curb. Together with a landscaped tree belt, parking lanes, and occasionally bike lanes, sidewalks and roads make up what is called the public right of way. Without public rights of way, we would all be constantly having to trespass on private land or pay tolls to get anywhere. This was the situation Martin faced inside and outside the gated subdivision. On his mile walk to the nearest convenience store, the sidewalk ends twice and becomes a no-man’s-land of grassy highway shoulder. If Martin were trespassing, he had no choice but to do so.

So you have a place with wide streets, few sidewalks along the street and those not connected, and a rainy night with a teenager walking and not driving.  You can see how George Zimmerman might have been thinking that Trayvon Martin was casing the neighborhood.  Youngerman goes on

After a tragedy, we try to imagine alternatives. What if we change the laws? What if we raise awareness? To those important questions I would add: What if we design places differently, places for people?

Houses with front porches rather than driveways bring residents outside even in rainy weather and put “eyes on the street,’’ as the pre-eminent urbanist Jane Jacobs described it. When houses are closer to the property line and on narrower streets, residents feel like they are more responsible for what happens outside. Zimmerman was a self-titled neighborhood watch volunteer. Design can make residents neighborhood watch volunteers naturally.

In a place meant for people with a denser residential street, maybe the man and the boy might have felt less like they were all alone. In a place meant for people with sidewalks and street lights, maybe they would have been less alone. Maybe a couple of neighbors could have stopped the altercation before it got out of hand.

Of course, some people did hear the altercation after it started and there are accounts from the 911 tapes, Trayvon’s girlfriend, and some neighbors so this was not a totally isolated incident.  But Youngerman does have a point:  a kid walking in the that community, for at matter, anyone walking in that community was unusual enough that George Zimmerman followed the walker. 

I wanted to see the location myself to confirm Youngerman’s description so I did a search for The Retreat at Twin Lakes and like a lot of Florida, there are a number of houses for sale including bank owned properties (REO’s) and some on the market as short sales.

This is one of the REO’s.  The picture is a little fuzzy since I had to enlarge it, but it does show some of the surroundings.

Property Photo

This is a better picture of the surroundings.  It appears there are sidewalks but not, as Youngerman pointed out, conventional ones parallel to the street.

The Tampa Bay Times had a story about the community on March 25 which  pointed out that there were to be 263 houses built and at the time of the story 40 were vacant and half were rented not owned.  This is what happens when the housing market bottoms out and you have a foreclosure crisis.  Whether the property is under foreclosure or not, no one can sell.  The community was not stable.  This is the kind of place where break-ins happen and they had started there. 

This picture from the Tampa Bay Times makes the place look like an apartment complex, different from the real estate sales pictures appearing to showing single family homes or Youngerman’s description.  But the sidewalks in the picture are between buildings and not near the street.

Cheryl Brown, with the family’s boxer, Sake, says she and her family are rattled by the fatal shooting inside their gated community.

So the density that Youngerman was looking for might have been there, but the layout was poor with sidewalks between building, but none parallel to the street and with people moving in and out and lots of vacancies, Retreat at Twin Lakes may have contributed to the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin that lead to Martin’s death just by its design and circumstances.  The bottom line:  Zach Youngerman is right about the impact of design if not right about all of the details.  This was a driving community, not a walking one and people did not know their neighbors.

Rebuilding the Longfellow Bridge

During the years I lived in Boston and worked in Somerville, I often took the red line train home in the late afternoon.  You would emerge from underground at the Kendall Square station onto the Longfellow Bridge and a spectacular panoramic view of the Charles River and the Boston skyline.  Often there were boats sailing.  You might see rowers, a Duck Boat Tour, and in the winter, ice forming on the edges of the shore.  The view rarely failed to make me feel better about the day.

Longfellow Bridge

But the bridge is now falling apart and a discussion has begun about how to redesign it.  The bridge will not be widened and there will still be room for inbound and outbound red line trains. 

Eric Moskowitz wrote in the Boston Globe on July 25

But the rebuilding of the Longfellow is about more than saving it from collapse. It comes at a time when key policy makers, from Boston’s mayor to the Obama administration, have pledged to rethink transportation and pull back from decades of favoring drivers and cars over bicycles and walkers.

As a result, the Longfellow has emerged as a touchstone and test case in the debate over urban transportation, with officials, highway engineers, civic leaders, and community advocates grappling over whether to reclaim some of the pavement used by automobiles to make more room for everybody else. It is a thorny issue that remains unresolved even as construction begins on a bridge that is both a treasure to preservationists and a lifeline for thousands who traverse it each day by subway, car, bicycle, and foot.

This is the proposal from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation

 Then the Liveable Streets proposal

You can also see the existing configuration.

Advocates [for the liveable streets alternative] say such a plan would honor a raft of recent policy changes and public pronouncements from leading officials. On his blog in March, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared “the end of favoring motorized transportation.’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino, at a bicycle summit, announced to cheers that “the car is no longer king.’’

The advocates note that car traffic on the Longfellow has been steadily declining for a decade, coinciding largely with the opening of the nearby Zakim Bridge. And they point out that traffic adjusted when the Longfellow Bridge’s travel lanes were temporarily closed for safety reasons. Now they see an ideal, highly visible opportunity for permanently taking some of that pavement to encourage more bikers and walkers.

I love the idea of cutting down on car traffic and benches on the walks.  This is a chance to really change the urban environment.

A shot of the Longfellow Bridge on a foggy night in January, 1919.

The Longfellow is named for a pedestrian: poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who regularly walked the earlier West Boston Bridge over the Charles during his long and turbulent courtship of the daughter of a Beacon Hill industrialist. In 1845 he published a poem inspired by those crossings, “The Bridge.’’