The American Planning Association (APA), a professional organization for urban planners, claims to “provide leadership in the development of vital communities by advocating excellence in planning, promoting education and citizen empowerment, and providing the tools and support necessary to meet the challenges of growth and change.” However, it’s often difficult to reconcile the organization’s principles of leadership and excellence with the projects and policies that it promotes and rewards. Case in point: the APA Inland Empire Chapter’s 2015 Best Urban Design Award for the Van Buren Boulevard/I-215 Overcrossing.
Presenting a Best Urban Design Award for a freeway interchange is absurd on many levels:
1. It’s not urban: The interchange is located in the middle of a field on the fringe of Riverside and Moreno Valley. The project doesn’t support a “vital community” or “citizen empowerment.” Its function is to help people move through the location as fast as possible.
2. It disregards people walking and biking: The interchange is designed to serve only cars at the expense of the safety of other modes. For pedestrians, the interchange doesn’t include sidewalks on both sides, requiring pedestrians to cross a long 90 foot crosswalk. For bicyclists, the interchange provides a bike lane in one direction only and requires bicyclists to swerve across two lanes of accelerating freeway onramp traffic – a design that’s proven to be deadly.
3. There is literally nothing special about it: The interchange includes some airplane designs that are barely visible from the freeway, intending to pay tribute to the nearby Air Force base. But that’s it – it doesn’t provide leadership in design or support growth and change. If anything, it embodies and reinforces the status quo.
By giving this project a Best Urban Design Award, the APA Inland Empire Chapter is encouraging a precedent of dangerous, automobile-centric 1950s design that doesn’t meet the needs of 21st century cities. While the safety hazards of this design might not seem to matter that much, it’s going to last a long time. If the Inland Empire continues to develop in a sprawling, car-centric manner (like the APA Chapter seems to encourage), this interchange could ultimately serve as yet another barrier to active transportation.
It’s disappointing that such uninspiring and flawed projects receive awards from a leading professional organization. Hopefully the APA Inland Empire Chapter will reevaluate what leadership and excellence in planning really means.