New Urbanism Needs a Re-Boot

Andres Duany. (Photo credit: Domus)

by James A. Bacon

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA–Since its genesis three decades or so ago, the New Urbanism movement looked to the 1920s as the golden era of urban development in the United States. City builders had adapted to the rise of the automobile as dominant transportation mode while retaining continuity with previous urban forms that emphasized walkability and human scale. But the time has come to look to a different era for inspiration, the 1870s, says Andres Duany, one of New Urbanism’s founders and intellectual leaders.

Planners, developers and designers need to adjust to the new age of economic austerity, said Duany at a plenary session of the 2012 Congress for the New Urbanism this morning. America needs to embrace “lean” development, a concept that encompasses both “green” building and sustainability and economic efficiency. New Urbanists need to create business models that allow development to occur incrementally and on a smaller scale without mega-millions in hard-to-get project financing. “The new economy is about doing things economically.”

“By our wits, we colonized a continent” in the second half of the 19th century, said Duany. Somehow, Americans managed to do it without a Department of Housing and Urban Development and without banks that bankrolled massive real estate deals. Somehow, Americans housed tens of millions of immigrants and laid out some of the country’s great cities, from Oklahoma City to Portland “out of nowhere” — cities that created so much wealth that they could support opera houses and universities.

The masters of the system, said Duany, were the Mormons. Between 1855 and 1905 they laid out 534 towns and cities, from Salt Lake City to San Diego. The Mormons were so poor then they they couldn’t afford Conestoga wagons. Yet they were brilliant managers. Not one of their towns failed. One Mormon secret was the large city block, one of the most flexible constructs in America. These urban units could be cut up into villages or they could accommodate an entire university. They were supremely adaptable and capable of evolving to meet new conditions.

In new projects he is working on, Duany said, he is looking for ways to bring down costs. Previous New Urbanism design tropes from the 1920s, such as mixed uses within a single building (retail on the ground floor, residential on the second and third floors) often are too expensive for the current economic environment. One solution is to achieve mixed use horizontally — placing flatter buildings with different uses adjacent to one another.

In other remarks, Duany defended the New Urbanism Smart Code, an open-source template for urban design originally developed by his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, as an alternative to traditional zoning codes. He does not hold up the Smart Code as a universal prescription. But the country needs an alternative to the traditional zoning codes that are largely responsible for the phenomenon of suburban sprawl.

‘The default setting in America is to have a code,” Duany said. But the dominant code built around segregated land uses leads to “kitsch.” It is dysfunctional. And efforts to circumvent its rigidities, such as handing over decisions to “aesthetic committees,” can lead to arbitrary decision making. “I would rather know what the rules are than be subject to the opinions” of such committees, he said. Moreover, the United States has 27,000 planning departments. They aren’t going away. The Smart Code provides them an alternative set of rules to apply.

However, Duany acknowledged that there needs to be “code free” zones, or at least zones free from the strictures of the Smart Code. Thirty percent to 40% of the population doesn’t want to live in compact, walkable, mixed-use communities, and they shouldn’t be made to. The core principle, he said, is to give people a choice.

13 Responses to New Urbanism Needs a Re-Boot

  1. Somehow, Americans managed to do it without a Department of Housing and Urban Development and without banks that bankrolled massive real estate deals.

    =========================================

    What? We did it with massive giveaways to the railroads. And those immigrants were housed in squalid, dangerous tenements. and thy worked in places that were as likely to kill them as provide them with a living.

  2. One solution is to achieve mixed use horizontally — placing flatter buildings with different uses adjacent to one another.

    ===========================================

    Voila! Suburban shopping mall.

  3. Moreover, the United States has 27,000 planning departments.
    ==============================================
    At least we don’t have to worry about central planning. Now all we need to guard against is terminal group-think.

  4. did he say Short Pump!
    I’m reading what Jim wrote which I assume is a clear rendition of what the man said…and I’ thought about it for a bit before commenting and to be honest… I still don’t know what the heck the guy is really saying…

    you simply cannot achieve the density that is presumably the goal (is it?) by spreading out horizontally rather than vertically.

    I bet after Jim thinks this over a big.. he’s going to have more to say….

  5. “I would rather know what the rules are than to be subject to the opinions”
    =================================================
    Right. How about one simple rule: when a rule change costs somebody money, you owe them compensation.

    Despite Larry’s contention, this makes it EASIER to change rules, not harder. What it does do, is make it harder for someone to impose an unfounded opinion.

  6. But the country needs an alternative to the traditional zoning codes that are largely responsible for the phenomenon of suburban sprawl.
    ==============================================

    Well, of course he would defend a code designed by his firm. But where is the evidence that the country needs something to limit suburban sprawl?

    If one wants to argue that we should not subsidize suburban sprawl, that’s fine, but that means, equally, that one may not subsidize or encourage more urban development. Not if the core principle is truly to leave people free to make their own choices.

    The issue that needs to be resolved here is what actually constitutes a subsidy? Who is supporting whom? Is it the city that provides the off-farm jobs that make the countryside possible? Is it the suburbs that provide the workers that make cities possible? If a city’s environmental footprint is much larger than the city, what is that enviromental support area worth?

    Before you go off and just pick a solution “prevent suburban sprawl”, shouldn’t we understand what costs will be incurred and what costs will be prevented?

  7. I’m all for flexibility and streamlining but at the end of the day – you need infrastructure and that costs money that someone has to pay.

    I still like the way that water/sewer is done. you pay your prorated share to get your connections and that money goes into a fund to buy future capacity and infrastructure.

  8. you simply cannot achieve the density that is presumably the goal (is it?) by spreading out horizontally rather than vertically.

    =================================================

    Is that really the goal, or is the goal to create the most efficient and liveable environment, that people actually want to be in?

  9. ….. and that money goes into a fund to buy future capacity and infrastructure.
    ============================
    Really? So how come there is never enough money for sewer expansion?
    And who cares anyway, if you are in a remote area on septic?

    And how many centuries do you have to sit there paying taxes for NO SERVICES, before you get a break when you eventually need some?

  10. there IS enough money for sewer expansion if you have a capital facilities fund and collect hook up fees.

    but it’s NOT unlimited. It’s limited to how much the fund can pay back in bonds.

    this is why localities designate limited water/sewer areas.

    If the demand goes UP and you collect a lot more hook-up fees then you can add more capacity faster.

    sometimes a developer will front the money and the county will get the bond and the new buyers will pay the hookup fees when they buy.

    you are NOT …ENTITLED to water/sewer availability.

    you ARE entitled to build your own well and septic.

    you do not pay taxes for water/sewer. You pay over and above taxes for water/sewer.

    if we did roads/schools like we do water/sewer – growth would not be near the problem because growth would then be paying for itself.

  11. Part of the problem with this digest is that Duany did not give his full presentation. He spent half of his allotted time addressing the remarks of the previous speaker, which allowed him enough time to give only a truncated version of his prepared presentation. I could question him only briefly after the address so I could fill in only a few of the blanks. So, bottom line: my account probably does not do justice to his thinking. Think of it as providing a flavor of his thinking.

    As for Ray’s comments about the squalid tenements, that’s a classic case of retroactively applying 2012 standards, based on 2012 standards of living, to the 1870s and 1880s. Standards of living have massively increased across the board during the last 140 years. I suppose you could argue that HUD managed to create tenement-style squalor, but you won’t see find it in any New Urbanism project.

    Regarding spreading out mixed uses horizontally… I can’t give a fair critique of Duany’s idea here because I don’t understand the concept well enough. Duany provided me only a hint of his thinking.

  12. ” But the country needs an alternative to the traditional zoning codes that are largely responsible for the phenomenon of suburban sprawl.”

    Does this statement presume there is undeveloped land available that zoning codes will not allow to be developed or does it imply that the codes won’t allow denser development patterns?

    Most of the folks who work in NoVa and commute to the Fredericksburg area are not looking for townhouses or apartments; they are looking for single-family detached in a cul-de-sac subdivision.

    I would question whether or not zoning codes are preventing THAT KIND of development in NoVa but rather a more simple matter of less and less land that can be developed in that way much less as an affordable price for many.

    So can someone be more specific about what zoning is actually preventing?

  13. Why do these people insist on always looking backwards instead of forwards?

    Given the accelerating pace of change in computing and telecommunications, can’t any of these experts imagine a different kind of society from the 1920s or 1870s?

    What if people lived in widely disbursed small towns and gained employment largely through electronic collaboration rather than commuting?

    What if the United States became a country of relatively independent regions where people could live the way they wanted away from the nanny states in Washington and Richmond?

Leave a Reply