Celebration, Florida is an example of what is called New Urbanism, modeled after older towns with compact downtowns, walkable streets designed for slower traffic, trees for shade. Some find it creepy; others admire it as a great model for urban design. But the things that people love about it, that make it work, may well change because Celebration is part of a larger community that has big eight foot wide fire trucks.
There is often a conflict in between the engineers and the emergency response people who want to move cars and fire trucks really fast, and the urban designers who want to slow cars and trucks down. There are almost always objections when bike lanes and speed bumps are proposed, that they might slow down reaction times by police and fire departments. Everyone has their own point of view; As Mark Twain noted, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
But when cities and towns already exist, police and fire departments usually assume that they have to deal with the hand they have been dealt and adapt to circumstance. They do not usually come in and demand retroactive changes. In Celebration, they are doing exactly that, demanding twenty feet clear so they can tear down the streets with their ladder trucks. To get this they have to eliminate on street parking and move trees, which are all actually there to slow traffic down and make it safe for pedestrians.
The Deputy Fire chief is essentially saying what the General said in the Vietnam war about the destruction of the town of Ben Tre:
“In order to save the village, we had to destroy it”
It is an issue we have covered before, how we let the heroes in uniforms decide how our cities should be designed around their big trucks. I wrote “So what we get is urban design by road engineers and firemen instead of planners and architects. No wonder our cities look like they do.” Celebration was different, and the firemen don’t like it. So what if it all was approved and built according to plans, if the Chief of Osceola County wants 20 feet clear, he will get 20 feet clear no matter what it does to the town, no matter how many people get killed by speeding cars. That’s another department. Or as Charles Marohn noted on Strong Towns:
If someone was to write a stage play about the endless fight between urban designers and engineers, it might well sound like the minutes of the meeting between the Celebration people and the County Department of Fire Rescue, which I have transcribed and edited. Here is the cast:
DM: Danny McCoy, Deputy Chief.
GM: Geoffrey Mouen, Celebration resident and town architect.
JZ: Joedel Zabarello, Traffic operations engineer.
FM Floyd McCollum, Celebration community district county Liaison and Celebration resident.
DM Safety issues that aren’t addressed give me nightmares. I am trying to make the development liveable for all. The streets are causing problems for our service.The ladder truck can’t make it down the boulevard one way streets with islands or the cul de sacs.
DM NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] says the road width must be 20 feet clear. There is no exception.
GM: when was this code enacted?
DM I don’t know the codes have changed but I don’t know when.
GM So why was Celebration approved by the County?
JZ I don’t know. I wasn’t here.
FM Celebration pre-dates that requirement.
DM that’s not how NFPA works. You have to meet it.
FM The streets and plans for Celebration were approved multiple times in a timespan over two decades. You don’t go back retroactively and apply new codes unless there are changes that trigger that.
DM Yes you do.
FM The town was purposely designed to have cars on the streets to narrow the travel lane and slow traffic and was approved by the County. This makes it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists… to make the boulevards 20 foot clear you will have to eliminate all parking.
DM We will do whatever we have to do to make it better.
JZ we are not eliminating all street parking
FM Yes you are, on the boulevards. They are all divided one way streets and you can’t get 20 feet clear without eliminating all parking.
Celebration, Florida/ WP/CC BY 2.0
Then there are the trees, a very big part of the community design, serving a number of design functions besides just looking good.
DM Trees are a problem. They should be moved.
GM Street trees are common in traditional towns. They shade the sidewalk. They are in the right of way so that they are under public control.
FM it is also a safety issue. Trees slow down traffic which reduces traffic accidents and increases pedestrians safety.
GM If you removed the street parking and trees there would be no visual clues to the driver to slow down. People don’t look at speed limit signs to decide how fast to go, they use visual clues that narrow the drive lane and cause drivers to slow down, as they don’t feel safe enough to go faster. There are studies that prove more people die in automobile accidents and pedestrians crossing the street than in die in fires. It’s a fact.
DM I don’t agree. I am not here to debate that. Where I live the streets are straight and the police sit there writing tickets to control speed.
It goes on; Geoffrey Mouen finally loses it (when the fire chief says he won’t use the lanes, which are wide and set up with fire hydrants for exactly this purpose):
I’m leaving, I’m upset. You have proven to me that I can’t be saved. I’m telling my neighbours. There is nothing further to talk about. You have stated that we are unsafe here in Celebration…. you have all given blanket statements about the street parking yet the alleys are accessible and even the fire hydrants are located there. I feel unsafe. I’m leaving.
Finally, Floyd McCollum asks:
One last question, you have very large bumpers on your very large and powerful trucks. Will you push a car out of the way if it is blocking access?
FR: We can’t hit cars, that’s just Hollywood. If we cause any damage, it goes to a review committee we get written up, and it goes in our permanent file. The county will be responsible for paying all damages.
Celebration, Florida/ WP/CC BY 2.0
So there we are. The fire department wants 20 feet clear for its 8 foot wide truck, because if they might get written up if they hit a car. So the trees will go, parking will disappear, cars will start speeding (because that is what cars do). And the fire department can do this retroactively in a community that was approved and built according to plans, because the Deputy Chief says the rules are retroactive, (which they are not), which would mean that almost every city in North America that New Urbanism was modelled on would have to be demolished and every street widened and every street corner rebuilt to larger curb radii.
They are essentially destroying the village in order to save it. And because they are in uniforms, they will probably get away with it.
See also in MNN: Why do we have such big fire trucks for so few fires? And why are our cities being designed around the needs of the trucks instead of vice versa?
Why designing streets for fire trucks gets it backwards