Fire codes threaten to undo urban street design

By Chris McCahill

A local debate over on-street parking in Florida typifies how codes and standards can obstruct walkable urban street design and, apparently, put those designs in jeopardy even after they have been implemented.

Celebration is a traditional-style development, created by Disney in the late 1990s, complete with front porches, sidewalks, street trees, parks, and a town center. It is now a community of more than 7,000 people. However, the design of its streets is being challenged by local officials who say they aren’t wide enough.

The dispute is mainly among fire officials, who say their trucks need a 20-foot minimum clear width to maneuver, and residents who argue that their streets haven’t been an issue for 20 years since they were first built. Officials propose removing on-street parking and street trees. Residents wonder where people would park instead and worry that the changes would hurt the community.

Water Street, Celebration, Florida. Source: Google Earth

Water Street, Celebration, Florida. Source: Google Earth

Fire officials couldn’t cite an instance where the current configuration has been an issue, according to the Orlando Sentinel, but instead see the proposed changes as precautionary measures.

The 20-foot standard originates from the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Code and the International Fire Code (IFC), which locals often adopt in either form. Street width provisions were first introduced to the codes in the mid-1970s. Before then, fire officials were rarely involved in street design decisions. The Congress for the New Urbanism—working with fire officials from around the country—recently proposed changes to the IFC that would bolster flexibility in applying the 20-foot standard, particularly when there are connected street networks that offer more direct routes and multiple access points, as in Celebration. But the International Code Council voted against those changes.

People on both sides of the discussion in Celebration see safety as a major concern. According to uncertified minutes from a March 15 meeting (provided by Lloyd Alter, writer for Treehugger), one resident argued that the current design, “slow[s] down traffic which reduces traffic accidents and increases pedestrian and bicycle safety.” Later, when asked about bikes and pedestrians, a fire official responded, “That is not an issue. Life safety is the issue.” This has become a common dispute in newer urban developments.

While fire safety is a serious concern, so are bicycle and pedestrian deaths, which have increased by more than 30 percent since 2009. In fact, metropolitan Orlando, which includes Celebration, is the third most dangerous area for pedestrian deaths in the country, according to an annual report from Smart Growth America. None of those deaths (from 2005 to 2014) happened on Celebration’s local streets.

Carl Wren, former chief engineer at the Austin Fire Department in Texas and key proponent of the IFC changes, argues that emergency responders should embrace potentially life-saving street design concepts. He also says they should be open to using smaller apparatuses, relying more on automatic sprinkler systems where access might be an issue, and exploring other creative solutions to fire protection and emergency response.

All interested parties, explains Wren, “need to further pursue open and honest dialogue that communicates our passions, our needs, and our desires in productive venues.” Celebration is a ripe testing ground for that dialogue and could serve as a model for other communities.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.