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5 Steps for Enhancing Downtown Orlando's Northern Gateway

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5 Steps for Enhancing Downtown Orlando's Northern Gateway

Cities are places to enjoy being in the presence of other people, creating with others, sharing ideas and transacting business. Those all depend on easy access and connectivity, comfortable and attractive public space and inviting gateways, which are key elements of Project DTO, Orlando's downtown vision and new redevelopment plan. A key part of the emerging Project DTO vision is of an "awesome outdoor city with highly connected neighborhoods and districts; a city with an iconic visual identity, built for the future so that open space supports recreation, air quality, tree canopy cover and water quality needs." Downtown Orlando's relationship with its lakes, a signature feature of the City Beautiful, is a centerpiece of that vision.

Downtown Orlando's northern boundary offers a wonderful opportunity to support the vision. It lies along a series of small to mid-size man-made lakes, known collectively as Lake Ivanhoe, created for fill as part of the 1960 construction of I-4 from Lakeland through Orlando, and used for stormwater retention for most of the downtown basin. Interstate 4 bisects Lake Ivanhoe, bringing commuters and freight to and through Downtown Orlando. Across its tranquil shores lie the tidy neighborhoods of College Park, Orlando's 1920s and 30s first ring suburb, and Ivanhoe Village, a dynamic mixed use district of bungalow homes, industrial uses, warehouses, specialty retail, bars and restaurants along North Orange Avenue. Gaston Edwards Park, on the lake's eastern shore at the intersection of Virginia Drive and N. Orange Avenue, offers a boat launch, an Italian restaurant with outdoor dining, exercise trails, volleyball courts and a fishing pier.

The boat launch at Gaston Edwards Park serves many types of users.
The boat launch at Gaston Edwards Park serves many types of users.

The lake is in the Lake Jesup drainage basin, a part of the Middle St. Johns River Basin, drawing from some 16,000 acres in central Florida, from Lake Dot in Downtown Orlando to Lake Jesup in Seminole County. The basin, principally Lake Jesup itself, is trying to recover from decades of growth. Each rainfall flushes lawn fertilizers, motor oil and other contaminants into the streams and lakes, fostering undesirable, mucky sediments that degrade habitat quality and reduce sport fish populations. Efforts to restore Lake Jesup occur through the Lake Jesup Interagency Restoration Strategy, of which the City of Orlando is a participant to improve water quality through its Greenworks Orlando sustainability initiative.

The turn on I-4 at Lake Ivanhoe is the first opportunity for southbound travelers to take in the full grandeur of Orlando's lakeshore skyline. Lake Ivanhoe also offers a scenic vista for those able to take the slower surface street routes, such as along North Orange Avenue linking Florida Hospital Orlando's Health Village and the Ivanhoe Village Main Street District with Downtown, or Edgewater Drive and Lakeview Avenue, connecting Orlando's venerable College Park neighborhood to downtown. Their confluence is at the mini Statue of Liberty, amid a sea of flowers. Gaston Edwards Park shimmers under a canopy of Live Oaks and other trees, a winding path offering convenience and comfort through the park to connect offices, hotels, antiques and restaurants.

The historic Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center building - a former OUC plant - is in dire need of a rehab.
The historic Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center building - a former OUC plant - is in dire need of a rehab.

But Downtown Orlando's northern gateway could be so much more. The I-4 Ultimate makeover will offer some opportunity to brighten up the dark and dreary overpass above Lakeview Street, but it really feels like Downtown Orlando has turned its back on its front door. Letting a disjointed convergence of interstate highway ramps, one-way surface streets, discontinuous off-road paths, disconnected commercial buildings and impenetrable flora dominate the landscape hinders the creation of publicly accessible and visible space that could serve as an iconic gateway for Downtown Orlando. Stemming from mostly unintentional actions, there is a significant barrier to access and connectivity of adjacent northern neighborhoods to Downtown Orlando.

The Ivanhoe off-ramp creates a visual and physical barrier to Downtown Orlando.
The Ivanhoe off-ramp creates a visual and physical barrier to Downtown Orlando.

The enjoyment of Downtown Orlando's iconic Lake Ivanhoe should not be limited to those who live along the lake or who can launch a boat to fish, paddle around or ski across its surface.  It should also welcome those who want to experience the lake habitat from the shore. There are more than 30 acres of publicly owned land, including right-of-way, on Lake Ivanhoe's shoreline. It may be time to open up access to Lake Ivanhoe as part of an overall strategy to better connect Orlando's neighborhoods with Downtown, create an awesome outdoor city, celebrate Orlando's iconic visual identity, and sustain the city and its natural resources for future generations. With the idea that more visibility and access goes hand in hand with better understanding and sustainability, here are five ideas that could help further that vision:

Lilly pad flowers blooming adjacent to I-4.
Lilly pad flowers blooming adjacent to I-4.
  1. Expand Gaston Edwards Park to include a lakeshore beach and public swimming area.Bring back a prime public spot for beach blankets, wading, kayak launching and swimming, drawing people from surrounding neighborhoods. Perhaps Winter Park's Dinky Dock shoreline provides an example. Access from nearby hotels, residences and businesses would make this a popular draw.

2. Re-new efforts to create a shared use path around Lake Ivanhoe. 

This city initiative died about 10 years ago amid vociferous neighborhood opposition, but maybe it's time to try again. The linkage between College Park and Downtown Orlando is difficult at best, and the lack of well-defined and comfortable path around Lake Ivanhoe is a huge missed opportunity. A growing retail, jobs and entertainment destination on the east side of the lake is an increasing draw for residents of all parts of the city and visitors. Creating continuous linkages between neighborhoods, retail and downtown, with Orlando's Urban Trail as the spine, is critical for shared success.

3. Create interpretative wayfinding signage to convey habitat and resource information.

Providing interactive visual and informative clues about natural character, distances to other destinations and a display of  historic and cultural or artistic resources is the connectivity lubricant of a city. This could help create an emerald necklace among all Downtown Orlando parks and natural areas, from Lake Ivanhoe to Lake Eola, Lake Davis and Lake Lucerne.

A Florida Snowy White Egret feeding among the shore grass.
A Florida Snowy White Egret feeding among the shore grass.

4. Establish public access/fishing areas underneath I-4 as part of the Ultimate I-4 makeover.

A fishing pier underneath I-4 linked by a walking path would be amazing.
A fishing pier underneath I-4 linked by a walking path would be amazing.

Lake Ivanhoe is a stocked lake and part of Fish Orlando! intiative of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Walking/cycling paths to enable people to fish under the I-4 bridge, perhaps with a pier out into the lake, would add destination appeal.

5. Encourage and support events and festivals along the shore.

Opportunities abound for surprise and delight. Acoustic concerts beneath gangly Live Oaks and Cypress trees at the water's edge; rehabbing and repurposing the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts building for performance and recording space; restaurants showcasing their menus with an "A Taste of Ivanhoe Village" event; water craft and ski shows on select days and times, and street parties on N. Orange Avenue between Ivanhoe Row and the lakeshore with the street closed could make this a more visible and attractive downtown destination.

The future is beckoning. Let's make it happen, Orlando!

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Talkin' 'Bout My Highly Mobile Generation

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Talkin' 'Bout My Highly Mobile Generation

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There’s an old saying that “demographics are destiny,” and I was reminded of this while reading a recent report from the AARP Public Policy Institute about the impact of the baby boomers on travel in the U.S. over past 40 years. Using data from the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), the researchers demonstrate how this enormous (and thus enormously significant) generation has been driving – pun intended – transportation patterns for decades and will continue to do so in the future.

Mobile Boomers

You probably know the basic story line already: the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were the first suburban generation. They grew up in a land of tract houses, backyards, strip shopping centers, and busy roads filled with cars. This post-WWII period also was an era of unrivaled prosperity in America, when new household devices like the washing machine and other household appliances made housework easier and faster, just as changing social norms and economic growth led to more women entering the workforce. So how did this prosperity change how people get around, especially the baby boomers growing up in it?

Baby boomers started driving at a young age, and both young men and women entered the workforce with more education than previous generations. When the baby boomers started building families, they acquired “his” and “hers” cars, spread a housing boom to the suburban fringes, and, with the advent of dual-earner families, exhibited a strong reliance on “outsourced” household support, such as day care and eating out, that required travel. As a result, during the past four decades, the number of vehicles nearly tripled, travel rates more than doubled, and total vehicle miles of travel grew at more than twice the rate of population growth. Since 1977, travel for household maintenance trips (nonwork) grew fivefold.

The baby boomers haven’t just traveled more than other generations at a particular point in their adult lives; they've traveled more at every point. Every year of the NHTS data since 1983 (when they were ages 19-37) shows that boomers traveled more miles per day than everyone else. So far the trend has persisted even as the baby boomers have increasingly become empty nesters, so it’s not just because of driving their kids around.

New Ways of Getting to the Doctor’s Office

Baby boomers have used cars to become the most mobile generation, but the NHTS shows that they may be shifting modes as they get older. Their vehicle travel (in terms of trips per person) increased throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, but started declining after 1995. Meanwhile, transit travel increased steadily over the years, with a notable jump in 2009 when gas prices were spiking (and transit travel increased among all age groups).

And transit is not the only mode of transportation getting more attention from baby boomers. The AARP researchers cite several interesting (though unfortunate) statistics that suggest that an increasing number of older people are using other means to get around. A study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concluded that a surge in motorcycle fatalities is related in part to an increase in the number of riders over the age of 40. And another study showed that the average age of bicyclists killed in traffic crashes has risen from 32 in 1998 to 41 in 2008. The NHTS data show that baby boomers’ share of all trips by bike increased 64 percent between 2001 and 2009.

The baby boomers have spent the past decades wielding their enormous influence on housing and consumer market trends, but these days you probably hear the most about their future impact on health care. While the complexities of health care costs and practices is a subject for a different blog post, a chart in the AARP report stood out for me as a clear demonstration of how transportation is going to be a quality of life factor for the boomers as they age – and all of us for that matter. Check out the red line in this chart:

Medical appointments: more trips, same distance

We’re not traveling any farther to get to the doctor’s office than we did 26 years ago, but we sure are going there (and labs, imaging centers, therapists, pharmacies, etc.) a lot more often. As planners we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make employment centers, retail districts, and civic/cultural destinations more accessible by multiple travel modes. Medical “places” are just as important to our quality of life, and an extremely large cohort of people who are used to driving a lot are beginning to enter the phase of their lives where they (1) will need more medical care and (2) may eventually be unable, unwilling, or less likely to drive themselves.

A New Generation of Challenges and Priorities

Reshaping and redeveloping our communities to better integrate travel by transit, bikes, and walking is of course one way to tackle the issue. But retrofitting places and increasing accessibility is a long term evolutionary process and won’t reach everyone who needs it. Paratransit and similar human services transportation options are a vital piece of the puzzle, but challenges in coordination, funding, and service availability already exist – before the baby boomer retirement wave has hit. Whit Blanton of Renaissance wrote in the recent issue of the APA Florida newsletter about how local governments, agencies, and service providers are working to overcome these challenges. As they have been throughout their lives, the baby boomers are the vanguard of a new trend, but linking accessibility, wellness, and quality of life is a goal that every generation can appreciate.

--Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog

 

Slideshow Photo Pictometry

 

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Your Commute Choice Can Make You Fat and Less Productive

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Your Commute Choice Can Make You Fat and Less Productive

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woman on bicycle This recent Reuters story about commuters and weight gain kind of falls into the “no duh” category of Obvious Research Conclusions, but upon closer inspection it’s really quite remarkable. The study of 822 Australians found that people who commute to work by car gained more weight than their counterparts who get to work by transit, biking or walking. OK, filed. But it goes on to report that the study included people who all got at least 2.5 hours of exercise per week during leisure time. That’s 30 minutes a weekday. So, if you commute regularly by car, modest regular exercise does not overcome the health impacts of that mode of transportation.

"Even if you are efficiently active during leisure time, if you use a car for commuting daily then that has an impact on weight gain," lead author Takemi Sugiyama of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne told Reuters Health.

Other research in Atlanta had similar conclusions. A 2004 study also found that the longer the work commute, the more food people bought and extended their driving time by driving to lunch or running other errands, further contributing to their likelihood of becoming obese.

The Economics of Obesity and Skinny Butts

infographic on communities and physical activity

Why should we care if auto commuters gain a few extra pounds than the “skinny-butt, skinny-tired bicyclists?” There is a huge economic impact of obesity associated with medical costs and lower productivity. A 2010 Brookings study reported that for childhood obesity alone, the annual direct costs in the US are about $14.3 billion in higher medical costs. There is also a quantifiable impact of obesity on adults in terms of lost productivity at work. For instance, in the North American division of Shell Oil Company, 3.73 additional days of work were lost per year for each obese employee relative to their normal-weight co-workers.

Another study cited in the research reported that employees considered at risk for obesity were 1.23 times more likely to be in the ‘high-absenteeism’ group than those who were not. With the cost of providing health insurance, employers may increasingly consider the obesity rate of the working age population when choosing between site locations. From the perspective of the digital arts and high tech industries, I’m willing to bet that the rate of obesity might be viewed an inverse indicator of a neighborhood’s or a city’s inherent coolness, much like having active transportation choices is a positive indicator.

It Takes a Plan

Planners have a critical role to play in designing active transportation networks and land use plans that offer more than just recreational and health opportunities. In addition to trails and Safe Routes to Schools projects, planners need to focus equally on taming the existing street network to improve connectivity and access for all users. We need to raise the awareness of elected officials about the direct and indirect benefits of a fostering a culture of walking, bicycling and using transit. As indicated in the research, active transportation needs to be integrated into every day activities. Trails or shared-use paths and other “amenities” often built by developers or by governments using abandoned rail lines have limited utility for most types of trips other than recreation. Even if they do connect people to jobs or retail, they are often limited and people must connect using streets or sidewalks.

Achieving a better jobs-housing balance and encouraging miwoman with bikes and busxed-use neighborhoods that offer complementary land uses is a long-term strategy that requires a commitment of policy and resources.

Investing in transit and ensuring it can thrive in an active, economically supportive environment is another must. But there are short-term, lower cost actions that can occur today. Designing walkable neighborhoods means addressing the barriers of wide, fast roads and improving access to transit for those on foot or bike. It means managing parking and using wayfinding. It will also take more education for everyone. And there’s no doubt that active streets depends on the support of law enforcement so all users – car drivers, walkers and bicyclists alike – observe the laws, know how to share the road, and feel confident they can access their destination safely and conveniently.

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