A Prescription for Healthy Places

The not-so-good news persists: The continuing economic woes, including long-term concerns about housing, infrastructure, and transportation policy. The complications (to put it mildly) of climate change. And the crisis in public health.

It’s no wonder the whole country feels a little under the weather.

Which is why we think it’s clever that famed designer/planner Dhiru Thadani came up with the cool graphic to the left to remind us that there is a prescription for what ails us. Or, at least, that there’s an approach to healthier living that should be included in national strategies for renewal.

The cure for what ails us?

Not coincidentally, that theme “Rx for Healthy Places,” provides the sub-title for CNU18, the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which will be held in Atlanta, May 19-22, 2010. The healthy places angle gets an extra shot of credibility because of the active participation in CNU18 of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The public health connection to New Urbanist principles has always been implied. It’s important these days, especially during a heated debate over the future of health care, to make it explicit. The most authoritative link-up between public health and land use planning is “Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities” by Howard Frumkin, director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. Dr. Frumkin will be honorary chair of CNU18.

Adding to the work of CDC researchers and epidemiologists who study links between physical health and environmental factors is an increasing body of work on mental health and social conditions, especially with regard to social isolation. Remember “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam’s 2001 best seller about “social capital” and community? That book inspired a lot of discussion in New Urbanist circles. And research has continued to connect isolation and ill health. Here’s a recent L.A. Times column on the topic (thanks to Ann Daigle for the link).

And to read more about the book that inspired the column, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, go here.

We’ll be reporting more and more about what’s beginning to shape up as an historic gathering in Atlanta next May. So keep coming back.

– Ben Brown

Infrastructure v. Economy: The Battle Continues

In the battle for pedestrian-oriented streets, it’s clear that walkability isn’t the only thing at stake. The heavy economic and environmental burden of auto-centric roads and utilities is starting to become painfully obvious. Both in scholarly research and the daily management decisions by local governments.

While compact development patterns are cheaper to build, they’re also cheaper to maintain. During a meeting of midwestern county governments last month, it was reported that most midwestern paved county roads soon will be turned back into gravel. This midwestern trend has been escalating over the last 12 months, as counties grapple with dwindling budgets. Repaving one mile of road costs about $120,000, while grinding it up into a gravel road costs $4,000, according to an article from Kalamazoo News. Lowering the cost 30 times leaves little choice for many strapped county governments.

The grass is always greener when it's slowly destroying your infrastructure.

From a more metropolitan perspective, this summer Calgary estimated compact development patterns would save them $11.2 billion in infrastructure costs, making it 33% less expensive to build the roads, transit, water, recreation, fire, and schools that it expects to need over the next 60 years.

The US EPA commissioned Morris Beacon Design this summer for a study on the subject, indicating TND infrastructure costs 32% to 47% less than conventional development patterns. Calgary pegs the lower end of this spectrum.

Taking a more holistic view of economy, energy, and emissions, The Transportation Research Board released “Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions” this month. This report details the effects of land development patterns and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on petroleum use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While the findings are completely obvious to urbanists, it’s good to see some quantifications through the scholarly attentions of this 180 page study. The primary findings are:

1: Compact development reduces VMT.
2: Doubling residential density while increasing nearby employment, transit, and mixed use can decrease VMT by 25%.
3: Compact, mixed-use development produces reductions in energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
4: These reductions will grow over time.
5: The biggest obstacle is zoning — regional and state governments need to take a stronger role in land use planning.

More governments than ever are starting to step up to this plate, to enact the sorts of zoning reforms that can:
1. Decrease their costs of building and maintaining infrastructure,
2. Decrease the amount of oil and natural gas required to fuel their local economies, and
3. Cap their local greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s an informal support group of some of the governments currently undertaking exactly the sort of zoning reform that can achieve these lofty yet expedient goals.

– Hazel Borys

Everything’s Connected: Health, Healthy Aging, Community Design

Among the most encouraging trends in Smart Growth is an emerging consensus that good community design can address a bunch of issues at once. Which makes for much more comprehensive, cost-effective strategies to match the complexity of challenges before policy-makers.

Take, for instance, the agendas of separate entities concentrating exclusively on topics such as public health, environmental protection, energy conservation, and aging issues. Just in the last few months:

Those of us who fall under the category of “aging Boomers” are going to be particularly interested in how this confluence affects both our personal and professional lives. Thankfully, healthy aging is becoming an increasingly hot topic and seems likely to offer some of the most immediate opportunities for unifying strategies.

In blog posts below, we’ve reported on how senior co-housing might fit into planning for New Urbanist TNDs and infill. And we talked about DPZ’s landmark Lifelong Communities Charrette for the Atlanta Regional Commission here and here.

The complete report from the DPZ/ARC effort in Atlanta is now up on the ARC’s website, and it’s a must-see for planners and municipalities concerned about how to work aging-in-place planning into other goals – such as retrofitting dead malls and creating infill TODs. Check it out here.

With this convergence of Big Ideas gaining momentum, what’s the next step? Scaling up. The bad news in this good news/bad news scenario is that the challenges of demographics, energy depletion, and climate change are bigger than any effort to confront them so far. Listen particularly to the ARC’s Kathryn Lawler in the video below, as she joins other presenters from a recent Healthy Aging conference in Chapel Hill, NC.

– Ben Brown

And Now the Rest of the Story: Stewart Brand Promotes Urbanism, Including Slums

This could be the next must-get book for Smart Growthers, New Urbanists, and lots of us who bought into the eco-techno connection decades ago. Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog and author more recently of How Buildings Learn (Penguin, 1994) – which Jane Jacobs called “a classic and probably a work of genius” – will have another big title out in the next week.

WholeEarthIt’s called Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. And you know how New Urbanists love manifestos.

Brand’s new work seems capable of raising eyebrows. In fact, it hit the No. 7 spot among “12 Shocking Ideas that Will Change the World” in the October issue of Wired magazine. In the realm of not-so-shocking, at least for Smart Growth types, is Brand’s championing of cities as good for the environment. More provocative maybe are his positive views about genetic engineering and squatter shanty towns

“We made the mistake of romanticizing villages, and we won’t need to make that mistake again,” Brand told Wired. “But the main thing is not to bulldoze the slums. . . That’s where vast numbers of humans – slum dwellers – are doing urban stuff in new and amazing ways. And hell’s bells, there are a billion of them!”

– Ben Brown

Call for Cool Plans

New Urban Guild plans Southern Living plan book

Miami-based architect and author Steve Mouzon, founder of the The New Urban Guild, has made the deal he and the Guild have been working toward for years. Southern Living magazine, arguably the most influential shelter mag in the southeastern US, is going to publish Guild collections of TND-worthy homes. And Mouzon is inviting all comers to submit designs.

Read all about it here

“We’re looking for a wide range of house plan sizes, from cottages to mansions,” says Mouzon. “And we’re also looking for many types of plans, including side yard houses, courtyard houses, carriage houses, townhouses, mews units, live/work units, and Katrina Cottages. There’s only one type we don’t need — ordinary houses — as in ordinary suburban houses with garages in front, facing the street. There are enough of those plans out there already.”

PrintPlans will be selected by a jury of Guild members. “It’s a tough jury, so only a fraction of plans submitted are likely to be selected,” says Mouzon. “But that’s what it takes to make sure this is the best collection of traditional neighborhood homes ever assembled.”

Go here for plan submission requirements. And if you want to see Mouzon’s narration of two of his own designs, Katrina Cottages constructed for Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, MS, check out this:

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

Prince of Wales Argues (Again) for ‘Bottom Up’ Design

Addresses British Architects Who Aren’t Always Big Fans

Twenty-five years after he prodded the Royal Institute of British Architects on the group’s 150th anniversary to consider making a little room for traditional approaches to architecture and planning, HRH The Prince of Wales appeared before the group on another anniversary to clarify the message. Though it’s not likely unrepentant modernists in the group saw it as a reframing of the issue.

Connecting us to our place in the world through an "organic architecture."

Connecting us to our place in the world through an "organic architecture."

“To my mind,” said the Prince, “that earlier speech also addressed a much more fundamental division than that between Classicism and Modernism: namely the one between “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to architecture. Today, I’m sorry to say, there still remains a gulf between those obsessed by forms (and Classicists can be as guilty of this as Modernists, Post-Modernists, or Post-Post-Modernists), and those who believe that communities have a role to play in design and planning.”

Maybe “organic” would be a less controversial way to express his vision than “traditional,” he allowed. “I know that the term ‘organic architecture’ acquired a certain specific meaning in the twentieth century . . , but perhaps it is time to recover its older meaning and use it to describe traditional architecture that emerges from a particular environment or community – an architecture bound to place, not to time. In this way we might defuse the too-easy accusation that such an approach is ‘old-fashioned,’ or not sufficiently attuned to the zeitgeist.”

Since The Prince of Wales has been the most ardent advocate of the New Urbanism in Europe, practitioners in the States will be interested in his current take on this continuing debate about form. See an edited video of his speech before the Royal Institute and a transcript here.

- Ben Brown

“Best Practices Guide” Debuts to Glowing Reviews

4th Edition of New Urban News Book Just Issued

Here’s what got our attention: Miami architect/author/New Urbanist provocateur Steve Mouzon says the 2009 “Best Practices Guide“ from the New Urban News “just might be the most useful single book on the New Urbanism I have ever seen.” (Read Steve’s complete review here). That’s hefty praise coming from Mouzon, who is famously cranky about architectural details and planning practices.

The latest edition of the "New Urbanism Best Practices Guide" reflects the movement's ever increasing, and ever-improving, body of knowledge.

The latest edition of the "New Urbanism Best Practices Guide" reflects the movement's ever increasing, and ever-improving, body of knowledge.

The book, by NUN editors Robert Steuteville and Philip Langdon and “special contributors,” runs more than 400 pages and utilizes some 800 illustrations and tables. Which bolsters the claim that this is indeed “the definitive reference on new urban ideas, practices, and projects.”

Among the new chapters are ones on architectural styles and building types, land development, parking, and health and aging. And the editors have revised and updated chapters that have to do with revitalizing cities and towns, retail, the workplace, civic spaces, marketing, finance, transit, and affordability.

The price: $129, plus shipping and handling; $99, plus shipping and handling for New Urban New subscribers and members of CNU. Student price is $79, plus shipping and handling. Download the order form from the NUN website.

- Ben Brown