Why it’s Time to Start Thinking about TODistricts
Great places we all seem to love and cherish are not typically a product of a single architectural style, ownership, project, or time. They are a mixture of design components and human conditions aged over time with culture, identity, and spirit. Although the professional act of placemaking belongs to all landscape architecture, architecture, and urban planning fields (as well as other allied fields), urban design as an academic field and area of professional activity covers the heart of the design activities that involve multiple buildings, open spaces, and ownerships (i.e. public and private). Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) are designed in relation to multi-modal and public transportation. Creating TODs—one of urban designers’ means of placemaking—has gained momentum in recent decades, especially in Sunbelt cities.
TODs are seen as opportunities for cities to create centers, nodes, or hubs of activity with a strong sense of place for the built environment. However, until now, TOD practice has emphasized limited, fragmented development patterns and partial stakeholder views, neglecting the greater urban form for the contemporary city. The purpose of this position piece is to revisit the term and the established scope of development practices around transit in order to better situate such placemaking activities within the broader framework of urban design practices. This article introduces the term Transit Oriented District (TODistrict), defined as the whole area within a half mile walking distance of a transit station, and reviews critical components of such district-level efforts. In light of research conducted on North Texas, the article discusses the relevance of the issue and offers lessons for developments and districts in Sunbelt cities and beyond to better inform the planning, design, and implementation processes and practices for future TODistricts.
The concept of developing land in relation to transit goes back to the mid-19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Early examples of steam-powered commuter railroads and streetcars—like the Hudson River Railroad, Harlem River Valley Railroad, and Long Island Railroad—were mainly on the East Coast, and these commuter lines helped channel population growth to outlying suburban townships (Bernick et. al., 1997). On the West Coast, the San Francisco-San Jose railway began service along the Peninsula in 1864, which led to the development of commuter suburbs such as Burlingame, Redwood City, and San Mateo (Mineta Transportation Institute, 2010).
Linking transit and development occurred less frequently after the advent of the automobile. Vehicles and bus systems with enhanced road infrastructure started replacing rail-based transit, which also affected the transportation systems being built by developers to service residential areas. While some suburbs in older cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago still functioned as transit-based communities, in most places transit was no longer a viable option for connecting residential development to the city during this period (Belzer, 2002).
The increase in transportation options and networks associated with the suburban boom, especially after the Second World War, was a cause for many concerns about traffic congestion in urbanized areas. The San Francisco BART system, MARTA in Atlanta, and Metro in the Washington, D.C. area opened in the 1970s. The pressures of growth, population increase, and new urban living trends, especially in the South and in Sunbelt cities in the past few decades, has promoted the development of new passenger transit rail lines in such places as Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. Encouraging momentum in urban living trends, coupled with the wider acceptance and recognition of New Urbanist (see CNU 2010) and Smart Growth principles in the early 1990s, further stimulated people-oriented development around transit. A few other cities have been added to this list since then, including Austin, Fort Worth, Houston, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio, while other cities seek significant expansion of their transit systems and the development surrounding them. Although the term “development” seems to be at the heart of the concept of TOD, it cannot fully explain the “district”-level placemaking efforts that go in to such comprehensive projects in the 21st century. Given that the expected outcomes of such projects in the contemporary urban environment are well beyond the interest and scope of any single owner, project, or time, it is essential to give priority to comprehensive and district-level urban design strategies.
A Transit Oriented District (TODistrict) is defined as the whole area within a half mile walking distance of a transit station. Such an area typically contains a higher density and a more diverse mix of uses, such as housing, employment, shops, restaurants, and entertainment. These districts aspire to have a strong sense of place and a diverse set of travel mode choices (such walking, biking, and public transportation), and to function more like a coherent district than a single project. TODistricts should be designed in conformance with a coherent district plan or zoning overlay that stipulates the type and scale of uses, permitted densities, and related regulatory and recommended items. In developing areas, these districts are usually expected to be organized around the station with coherent streets, parks, plazas, or squares that collectively function more like an urban district than a single project. However, if the district is located in an existing urban area, the current regulations regarding enhancements of streets, parks, plazas, or squares should encourage strong public spaces and connectivity within the district and also enhance connections to other areas.
Recently, a research report on North Texas was published by a team led by the author of this article concerning transit oriented development and districts. The research systematically reviewed projects, literature, policies, and guidelines on a local, regional, national, and international scale in order to build a multi-disciplinary understanding and knowledge of the subject, and set preliminary recommendations for the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan region. The aim of this innovative research is to respond to changing global and regional socio-economic and environmental dynamics by means of sustainable, environmentally friendly, and economically sound practices as well as responsible growth strategies in districts surrounding transit stations. The research illustrated the stages between the conceptualization of the TOD as a tool of place-making and the ways it has been adopted into an actual built environment for different urban settings by specifically reviewing the lessons learned from 21 TOD and TODistrict case studies in North America.
In addition to demonstrating the importance of regional understanding and adaptation of typologies to build a shared vision among the cities and municipalities to create consistencies in visioning, planning, adaptation of rail based transportation and TODs, our research also suggested that district-level (TODistrict) considerations rather than development-specific solutions are a desirable scale for place making that better serves the community. This research also identified 20 common features from the case studies and our review of other relevant literature. This list synthesizes information gathered on TODs that vary in scale, community type, land use mix, and density, and can be seen as a set of important features for every TODistrict in North Texas, in Sunbelt cities, and beyond—wherever transit is used as a means to build urban environments and communities.
Our Smart Features for transit oriented development and districts are:
- Strong vision
- Response to regional context
- Strategic transit oriented development or district plan
- Alternative zoning mechanisms (Form Based Codes, Smart Growth, etc.)
- Diverse mix of land uses (Office, Residential, Retail, and Civic)
- Essential uses and services (Child care facility, School, Grocery, etc.)
- Range of housing choices
- Community and public participation
- Joint development programs (Public Private Partnerships, etc.)
- Non-traditional financing mechanisms (TIF, CIP, BID, PID, etc.)
- Compact built environment
- Sustainable architecture
- Context sensitive design
- Multi-modal transportation options
- Pedestrian emphasis
- Station integration
- Attention to place making
- Environmental sensitivity
- Development in existing communities
The research that serves as the foundation for this article suggests that the attention paid to district-level urban design strategies would not only influence community identity by creating attractive and pedestrian-friendly urban form, but would also foster community interaction and enhance quality of life by creating compact and active spatial organization throughout TODistricts.
Although some key points and Smart Features for the design and development of TODistricts are outlined above, we recommend that cities and municipalities be proactive and create district-level strategic plans, develop district typologies, and author design codes and guidelines that would respond to the needs of development projects within such districts. Specifically, sensible place making and urban design strategies that make a concerted effort to shape architecture, landscape and open space infrastructure, pedestrian and street networks, as well as parking and accessibility at a district scale would not only address some of the new challenges of 21st century metropolitan areas, but would also contribute to the sense of place that is desired by communities across metropolitan regions.
Although the research report briefly outlined here promotes a shared regional vision and a preliminary resource for North Texas communities, professionals, and stakeholders in both public and private sectors, it also includes lessons for developments and districts in other Sunbelt cities and beyond by recommending sets of regional principles, strategies, and tools for the planning, design, and implementation of future Transit Oriented Districts.
The full research report may be found on the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ website.
Belzer, D. and Autler .G. (2002). Transit Oriented Development: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality.
Bernick. M. and Cervero, R. (1997). Transit Villages in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw Hill.
Dittmar, H. and Ohland, G. (2004). The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Mineta Transportation Institute (2010). History of Transit-Oriented Development.
Ozdil, Taner R., & Taylor, P., & Li, J. (May, 2012). Transit Oriented Development Research. NCTCOG University Partnership Program. Published online by NCTCOG, 294 pages.
Reconnecting America and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) (2010). TOD 101: Why transit-oriented development and why now? Oakland, CA; Reconnecting America.
A special thank you to: Yao Lin, Jack Buchanan, and Hulya Ozdil for their contributions, as well as other UT Arlington Research Team Members, and our research sponsor North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG).
by Taner R. Ozdil, Ph.D., ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, & Associate Director for Research for the Center for Metropolitan Density, School of Architecture, The University of Texas at Arlington