In El Paso, back to (urban planning) basics

Smart growth? Texas? El Paso's "tour de force vision" seeks to bring back walkable neighborhoods and the streetcar to a city overrun with automobiles.

Texas is hardly the first place that comes to mind when you think of thoughtful urban planning, but the city of El Paso is trying to change that.

At the NRDC's Switchboard blog, Kaid Benfield outlines the city's "264-page tour de force vision" for the city, which aims to bring upon a return to the city's historic roots with smart growth: walkable neighborhoods, a streetcar system and that distinctive urban feel.

The plan targets four areas of the 800,000-population city ready for redevelopment: Remcon Circle, Five Points, the Oregon Corridor and a former industrial site near the city center.

The idea: it's time to put the automobile (and sprawl) in its place, and design a city that can accommodate cars just as effectively as pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit systems.

Techniques on tap for the project:

  • Public events to gain community participation.
  • A survey of residents' transportation habits and needs.
  • Adaptive reuse of existing buildings.
  • The use of infill, street trees and green space to create a more attractive streetscape in the downtown area.
  • The creation of transit-oriented nodes throughout the city.
  • The creation of street connections and public places to facilitate pedestrian activity.
  • Environmental remediation, including green stormwater infrastructure.

The study's authors write (pardon the long quote; it's all very good):

A major question for this process is whether to continue in the current auto-oriented model or to build using a model that is more in keeping with the historic pre-automobile patterns that made El Paso a great city and a desirable place to live and work.

In the past, the city was organized in neighborhoods that were served by a comprehensive streetcar system to the Downtown. The streetcar system emphasized Downtown as the central location retail services and office employment. The neighborhoods adjoining Downtown that were served by streetcar were convenient places to live for anyone working Downtown, and living in those neighborhoods offered a short commute with all of the amenities of Downtown accessible by a short walk to the streetcar.

As the automobile became the dominant transit mode this pattern changed and the centrality of Downtown became less important for location than places with good freeway access. The result of this change was the pattern we see today of retail centers unconnected to downtown or the neighborhoods, corridors designed for automobiles and strip development designed to take advantage of passing traffic volumes.

The current model of development is designed around the requirements of the automobile, and is reliant on automobile travel, both for residential development and for retail development. [...] These models of development built and shaped postwar El Paso, pushing development outward from the core and resulting in a loss of vitality in downtown and the older core area neighborhoods.

The plans presented propose a different solution, by creating complete walkable neighborhoods when planning new greenfield development, and by proposing infrastructure that reworks the urban framework in existing neighborhoods to reinforce their character and vitality.

This model of development is not new—it is how El Paso was built in the days of its streetcar system. It does not suggest losing the advantages of auto-oriented development but rather adds an extra dimension, using both the passing traffic and an intensification of land use to achieve viability for businesses.

In other words: it's time to bring the bustle back to El Paso.

Connecting El Paso (.pdf) [Dover, Kohl & Partners]

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