18th New Urbanist Congress: Best Ever?

What’s constitutes “best ever” depends on the takeaways, right? And when it comes to conferences, we could be talking takeaways that aren’t products of the event itself. Like maybe you got a job or connected with a soul mate. Let’s call that the upside of unintended consequences. Continue Reading

Love Ain’t Enough: Put Up or Shut Up

Like any next, big something, placemaking is growing up. And in its role as gawky adolescent, it’s beginning to realize something most of us have long since come to accept: You can’t skirt by on youthful good looks forever.

Today, efforts to create more endearing and enduring surroundings are being subjected to decidedly grown up demands. And with them, smart growthers—from enviros to designers to code reform advocates—are learning one of life’s hardest lessons: Love will only take you so far.

Son, you’ve got to demonstrate sufficient returns. Continue Reading

ReTales: How Trying Too Hard Messes Up Main Street

In taking on the foibles of our built environment, author James Howard Kunstler makes a point of noting that he’s neither an architect nor planner. Instead, he’s the everyman, and his profession is dutifully pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

I’m in a similar position. I’m not an architect or planner either (or a retail consultant, for that matter). I’m an interpreter of such folks, taking the wonky banter that characterizes their various disciplines and making it accessible to the concerns and interests of regular, everyday people. Continue Reading

Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

Development Option Theory

The real option theory of land development was a hot topic in the mid 2000′s, as the volatility of the real estate market peaked. Now that we have a break from the U.S. housing bubble and financial crisis, it’s worth talking about how we might decrease the volatility of the development market over time.

Urbanism by right is achieved with tools such as form-based codes, which allow walkable, compact, mixed-use, sustainable development, at the scale of the lot, block, neighbourhood, and region. Changing the law to allow urbanism by right makes walkable communities go “in the money” for several reasons, including decreased uncertainty, shortened planning and approval processes, increased flexibility, and increased long term asset value.

Snow falls on The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development in
Montgomery, Alabama, governed by the form-based SmartCode.

One of the best ways to decrease volatility is to decrease uncertainty. You change what developments pencil when you decrease the uncertainty of what is developable. Uncertainty is “beta” from the option theory perspective. As beta decreases, the required rate of return also decreases, because people don’t need to be paid so handsomely if they aren’t taking as much risk when they “buy” their option to develop.

The time value of money is less of a factor when the playing field is levelled to allow urbanism by right, because the development process is drastically shortened. If the developer isn’t owning a call option on a property as long, her interest fees decrease. The reason that form-based codes shorten the timeline is because a prerequisite is consensus on the community vision. By agreeing in advance about the sort of development that locals want, developers have both shorter plan approval times, and increased certainty about what their options are. Less emphasis is put on individual mojo and political connections that allow discretionary power over development decisions. Community NIMBYs have already spoken to what is and isn’t allowed in their back yards.

As flexibility increases, the option value increases. Form-based codes are inherently flexible, and nimble in their responsiveness to adapt to changing conditions. The mixture of compatible uses allows one building or block to respond to market demands, changing from a townhouse, to a live-work, to a storefront, and back again, all as a matter of right. Higher densities encourage more compact development patterns, allowing narrow lots that can provide a range of price points. Blocks within form-based codes are easily re-platted to move up or down the Transect, because the basics of the urban form and street grid are honoured. Conversely, in suburban bedroom communities, along strip retail, or within other auto-centric patterns, sprawl repair is expensive and time consuming. Once a developer commits to one of these uses, they’re locked in.

Increased long term asset value is enjoyed by walkable neighbourhoods, which are healthier for the economy, society, and environment. This is from myriad reasons, including increased walkscore, decreased vehicle miles traveled, increased housing value, decreased carbon emissions, decreased auto costs, increased personal fitness, decreased infrastructure cost, increased hours available, real community, and the list goes on.

All of this is captured in the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the development option. Intrinsic just marks the asset to market once the land is developed, while extrinsic is the value of the volatility around which a developer can bet or trade. Too much of the latter builds your house of cards, and bubble bursts. The extrinsic value decreases and intrinsic value increases when physical and policy planning reforms are undertaken.

A recent NY Times article discusses several market factors of the development landscape over the next two years, as we recover from recession. These include the current scarcity of construction financing, the lowering price points of residential demand along with increasing housing types to include condos, town homes, and flats, and that in many places, conversion is less expensive than new construction. All these items, with the exception of financing, find solutions within the flexibility, certainty, and timeliness of form-based codes. In fact, in places that have adopted optional form-based codes, locals indicate that most of the recessionary development is occurring under these optional form-based codes instead of under the auto-centric laws.

“One of the economic conundrums of the past year has been the great divergence in the Canadian and U.S. housing markets. While American home prices swooned in 2009, the Canadian market only stumbled before resuming its inexorable climb upward,” according to the Globe & Mail last week. Some economists say this is the result of Canada’s fiscally sound banking practices, while others argue that the Canadian housing market is 15 to 35% overvalued. If the latter is true, a careful look at the predominance of Euclidean bylaws in Canada that increase market volatility via destabilizing uncertainty is worth consideration. Indeed, western provinces are leading with bylaw reform, with 12 out of the current 14 Canadian form-based bylaw initiatives being based in the west.

–Hazel Borys

A Rapid Kick Off for CNU18 Atlanta — “Urban Labs” Point to May Conference

The 18th national conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism doesn’t officially start until May 19, 2010. But Atlanta, the host city, is getting a running start.

Conference organizers in Atlanta are working with Metro governments, non-profits, and the private sector to create lead-in events tied to all the big themes of the May gathering. The broadest of the themes, of course, is the “healthy communities” category, reflecting the association with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can read about that in one of our previous posts.

There are also opportunities to integrate CNU responses on topics having to do with transportation and transit, sustainability, affordability, “aging in place,” and retrofitting suburban sprawl.

The first of the CNU18 lead-in events were held on January 14 and 15. Central Atlanta Progress, the leading convener of a broad cross section of advocates for downtown redevelopment, joined with CNU18 organizers to stage an information forum and a one-day urban lab in one of the downtown neighborhoods. The two events attracted an impressive array of local leaders and organizations – plus CNU president John Norquist, CNU co-founder Stefanos Polyzoides, and international designer/planner Dhiru Thadani.

Here’s a video overview.

Norquist provides a strong “why Atlanta” explanation here:

And Polyzoides offers his overview on Atlanta’s challenges and opportunities here:

Next up is another lead-in lab opportunity on March 1 and 2, when Sustainable Urbanism author Doug Farr appears as one of the main speakers at the annual Greenprints conference. The conference is sponsored by Southface, the Atlanta-based non-profit that trains builders, developers, and others in state-of-the-art green building practices.

– Ben Brown

Easy Rider: David Byrne Unfolds Bike, Reviews Cities of the World

Over the holiday I experienced a very 21st century weekend. Upon downloading my new Kindle App on my iPhone, I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, 2009 Viking Penguin. The $14.99 book caught my attention at the local bookstore and became my first Amazon Kindle App purchase for $9.99. I know, I know… but I promise to never buy eBooks that have exclusive Wal-Mart deals.

David Byrne, artist, musician and now author, is this year’s CNU 18-Atlanta Keynote speaker. His Talking Heads music taught me to dance in early 1980′s High School proms and one of my partners was in a punk rock band on the same New York City club circuit. While traveling through Texas recently, I re-watched Mr. Bryne’s 1986 movie, ‘True Stories,’ which I found to be an enjoyably restrained criticism of suburban sprawl. So, I was connecting with the author on many levels and eagerly swiped through the e-book on my iPhone.

Still talking: David Byrne

The hook is that Mr. Byrne sees our townscape as New Urbanist do while writing down his observations from the perspective of his well-travelled folding bicycle. While traveling the world to perform, Mr. Bryne brings his bicycle with him to refresh his senses and understand the places he is visiting. Through his years of bicycling around the world, coupled with his musician point-of-view, the book’s hook on me was his chapters on experiencing cities in an intelligent and artistic manner. He poignantly captures the landscapes of Manila, Berlin, Istanbul, Detroit and Baltimore in political, social and cultural ways. His account of finding the visionary urban planner Jan Gehl, great New York urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and Transportation Innovator Enrique Penalosa, seemed illuminating for Mr. Byrne, and I look forward to hearing his reaction to meeting our Congress this spring.

My personal reaction to the book was that Bicycle Diaries is a more artistic version of James Howard Kunstler’s more caustic City in Mind. After an easy-to-agree-with suburban sprawl critique introduction, I began to feel like a NASCAR spectator awaiting the carnage! Blow up Las Vegas; put Detroit out of its misery; and, yes, San Diegans are rude! The fun part was Mr. Byrne’s unexpectedly sharp critique of European and foreign cities both culturally and while biking. Except for Melbourne, of course. It seems Melbourne has become the new Barcelona – the greatest city in the world – probably because it is located in the far corner of world and most of us can only imagine how great it is.

The ending of the book sort of drifted off for me as I was less interested in Greenwich Village bicycle rack design as I had been about a city of hookers in the Philippines (an unfortunate personal bias). The revelation that resonates with me is because of David Byrne’s desire to simply get out of the car to see and experience the world he has become a well-respected transportation advocate in his hometown of New York.

– Howard Blackson

Learning from Leon

My colleagues have quickly grown tired of my repeated references to the week I recently spent with Leon Krier while he toured Southern California to promote his new book, The Architecture of Community. The book, published by Island Press and co-edited by Dhiru Thadani and Peter Hetzel, is an updated compendium of Leon Krier’s most significant work to date. The book was included in Planetizen’s Top 10 Books published in 2009.

Leon me, when you're not strong..

Before this publication, Geoff Dyer, one of my business partners, and I had been engaged in a silly professional competition to acquire Leon’s books because it was difficult to find his many brilliant books and projects for sale in United States book stores. My rare French copy of Architecture Rationnelle put me in the lead until Leon autographed Geoff’s copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate, led with “To the very talented…”

With a stroke of Leon’s pen, Geoff now sits comfortably in the lead.

Leon came to San Diego to give a lecture on architecture and urbanism to 250 interested people in a beautiful Balboa Park theater and then to 200 excitable students and faculty at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Local reporters, planning directors, and political leaders heard, met and learned from Leon throughout the week. San Diego Union-Tribune and San Diego City Beat wrote about his time in the city.

After San Diego, Leon then spoke to a class at Arizona State University with Emily Talen and Nan Ellin. He then joined Stefanos Polyzoides in Pasadena to discuss architecture and urbanism at the invitation of the Mayor of Pasadena. Pasadena Star News and Pasadena blogs Inside Socal and Media Bistro covered the visit.

The lessons learned from Leon while touring the Southwest were varied, complex and meaningful. The more general themes surprised me most. For example, upon picking him up from the airport, I immediately drove Leon to the latest modernist infill project in my turn-of-the-century streetcar neighborhood. The villa savoye copy had been in Architecture Record as the local architect is well known.

Upon passing by the building slowly, I was expecting an affirmation of my disgust when Leon says–disappointingly– “It’s good.” My eyes widened and my hands gestured wildly as I explained that the fenestration was backwards, the building completely out of context, and the urbanism only existent in materials and scale. Leon agreed that all were true, but that for a modernist building it was a very good example.

The lesson being, “If you do modernism (or anything for that matter)… then do it well.” He is correct. I forget how difficult it is to get buildings and places built. He said that to build anything in today’s toxic environment (naturally and politically) was laudable and then to build it well was meaningful. So, I relaxed a little about a building I had previously wished acts of God upon and drove Leon downtown.

Driving past the single core of the city, townhouse-wrapped, Vancouver-model towers proliferate San Diego’s downtown cityscape. I explained the ugly politics that gave additional entitlement to buildings that had green roofs rather than civic spaces. I was expecting a classic Leon Krier diatribe on the lack of value Vancouver brings to the New Urbanist dialog and both the ecological and social failure of high-rise towers as a building type. Instead, he thought San Diego’s towers were somewhat playful and fun. He explained that while towers are regretful, these had an element of lightness and amusement that made them easier to live with than those being stamped across Vancouver and the east coast.

Finally, he quickly surmised that our monotonous grid must become more complex. As he had pointed out years ago in Houses, Palaces, and Cities, the grid is rural in structure with its visual terminus toward infinity. A simple ‘center’ was needed in key locations to ‘urbanize’ the neighborhoods within the monotonous grid. Due to the width of San Diego’s typical streets, 80’, a majority of the infill retrofit could occur within city right-of-way and include civic buildings.

Therefore, mostly what I learned from Leon (besides the fact that driving around was much less informative than walking) was to approach places and projects with a positive, optimistic attitude in order to work towards a better future. Why is this simple lesson meaningful? To see this man remain positive after 35 years of being vilified in our modern design world is very inspirational. While his professional lectures are polemic and absolute, his professional perspective is equally optimistic and conclusive.

The following are Leon Krier’s recent drawings of how to create more urban centers in our more rural grid:

Existing US Condition

           


           

–Howard Blackson

New Urbanist Cohousing: Another Arrow in Developers’ Quivers?

CNU 17, DENVER, CO – New Urbanists attending the 17th annual Congress of New Urbanism gathering in Denver will spend the next four days talking about alls sorts of overlapping , interconnected challenges: The uncertain economy, the implications of climate change, the impact of an aging society on land use planning, to name a few. About an hour away in Boulder are intriguing examples of how designers, developers, and a forward-thinking housing authority might tackle some of those issues.

The Holiday community on Broadway, about 10 minutes from Boulder’s downtown, is a ten-year-old New Urbanist development built on an old drive-in movie site. The local housing authority, Boulder Housing Partners, acquired the property in 1997, and invited five local developers to provide 300-plus units, 40 percent of which had to hit affordability benchmarks.

The Holiday community's co-housing units.

The Holiday community's co-housing units.

The general plan – retail and offices fronting Broadway, live-works, town houses, duplexes, and single family units of different scales deeper within the project – would be familiar to most New Urbanists. What sets it apart are two embedded cohousing neighborhoods – Wild Sage, a 34-unit multi-generational neighborhood, and Silver Sage Village, a 16-unit elder cohousing cluster.

Cohousing is an imported-from-Denmark approach to community building that reverses the usual relationship between resident and developer by encouraging the formation of a virtual neighborhood of people who work out how they intend to live with one another before they move in, or even choose the setting in which they’ll live. They maintain separate living units but share maintenance chores and a  common house where they dine together at least a couple times a week. It’s part commune, part condo, all community. For a more complete explanation and list of cohousing communities in the US, go here.

Before the economy went into the dumps, cohousing was attracting more and more interest, particularly elder cohousing, which seems a far more attractive way to age in place than in a car-centric suburb.  Last month, USA TODAY’s Haya el Nasser profiled life at Silver Sage. And the movement is still big enough to stage its own national get-together, June 24-28, in Seattle.

That appeal to community makes cohousing a natural ally, a potential nesting component, in New Urbanist projects all over the country.  Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Development Company credits the fast start of the whole Holiday project to the enthusiasm Wild Sage’s residents brought to the project.  And demand for units in Silver Sage Village boosted market-rate prices over the $500,000 mark for some units.

Is this something developers, who could use all the jump starts they can find in the current environment, should be paying more attention to?

Certainly Jim Leach and architect Bryan Bowen, who designed the two Holiday cohousing clusters, think so. 

– Ben Brown

Now What? CNU 17 Addresses the New Era Economy

The irony is unavoidable. Interest in Smart Growth and New Urbanist topics has never been higher. Check out this May 2 column in the Washington Post; or David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times from May 4. Yet the economic downturn has sucked the energy out of innovative projects in both private and public sectors. Lots of will, less way. At least for the moment.

image002And this is the moment in which the 17th national gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism takes place. CNU 17 begins June 10 in Denver. Early registration ends today.

Before the bottom dropped out of the economy, CNU attendees were expected to be talking a lot about greening the movement. Now, the hot topics will be about adapting to new realities.

While the downturn may seem like a reason to skip this year’s gathering, it may be the best reason for scraping together the resources to get to Denver. If ever there was a time to share great ideas, this is that time.

Already the energy is producing cool stuff, particularly the award-winning video that makes the convincing argument that cul de sacs spell the end of civilization as we know it. Here it is:

We’ll see you there. If you have time, check out the discussion I’m moderating at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13. It’s an invitation to  “Embrace the Convergence” between the goals of creating compact, walkable comunnities and strategies for addressing public health, environmental, and demographic challenges. On the panel: EPA’s Tim Torma, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and former AARP staffer Michael O’Neal.

- Ben Brown