New urbanists, fire officials join in quest for narrow streets and effective emergency response

Follow progress of CNU, partners at

Tags for this image:

After years of often finding themselves on opposite sides of disagreements about street design approvals, new urbanists and members of the fire service gathered in Austin just before the start of CNU XVI and discovered they have more in common than many first thought.

Twenty-five participants – fire marshals, civil and traffic engineers, planners, and researchers – discussed and debated the intricacies of urban street design and emergency response in a two-day workshop April 1-2. The workshop, “Smart Growth Streets and Emergency Response,” was the first public step in a multi-year effort by CNU and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconcile the essential new urbanist need for narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets and the goal of emergency service providers for fast response times.

CNU has opened a new door to learn more: The Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative page at CNU’s website. The page contains an overview of the project, a summary of the workshop’s key findings, links to its presentations and links to other resources, and contact information.

Tim Torma, acting director of the EPA’s Development, Community and Environment Division (also known as the agency’s Smart Growth Office, said the workshop was “a good first step overall.”

“We left with a better understanding of each other, and they have a better understanding of why insisting on wide streets is problematic not only from the perspective of how a community looks and feels, but also from a safety standpoint,” Torma said.

Lieutenant Frank Nause, a firefighter/paramedic and assistant fire marshal with Chesterfield County (Va.) Fire & EMS, agreed. “We all want the same thing, it’s just a matter of how we’re going to achieve that goal,” he said.

Participants spent day one discussing street networks, design, width and safety; and firefighting equipment, tactics and strategies. Day two covered building design issues. Breakout groups debated performance measures and tried to imagine what a “universal” emergency response, traffic, safety, and sustainability code might look like.

The workshop, moderated by Jim Charlier, president of Charlier Associates, Inc., concluded by developing a list of shared values upon which all participants broadly agreed:

  • Life safety is important, should be inclusive, and extend from fire to traffic.
  • We value cost-efficient use of public resources, including property, services and infrastructure.
  • We value vibrant places that enhanced pedestrian activity.
  • We value communities that include a range of neighborhoods and compatible uses.
  • We value streets, structures, and fire protection features that match the context of the neighborhood.
  • We value creative collaboration among those who serve and shape the built environment.
  • We value ongoing education and capacity-building among those who serve and shape the community.
  • We value adoption of life-saving responses due to regional differences.

A ninth value, whose wording remained unresolved at the workshop’s end, addressed how code development might be addressed.

“For this project, it’s really important that new urbanists and fire marshals work together to create connected street networks,” said workshop organizer Patrick Siegman, a transportation planner and principal at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting. He cites the 2000 Raleigh, N.C., study showing a fire station in the most connected neighborhood covers three times more buildings than a station in the least connected neighborhood.

As cooperative as the workshop was, new urbanists also need a better understanding of operational difficulties and hazards, said Capt. Frank Kinnier, an assistant fire marshal with Chesterfield County (VA) Fire & EMS. “I think more time has to be spent with the planners seeing and actually maybe [having them] experiencing some of the things that firefighters have to work with.”

John Norquist, CNU’s president and CEO, agreed: “Most new urbanists don’t know the fire business. We need interaction. We can get useful information to help cities find urbanism-based solutions.”