New Neighborhoods


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Consider two views about sustainable cities. Call one the Green City, and the other the Compact City.

Green City: A sustainable city is a green city. It has lots of plants and trees that make the city more beautiful, provide habitat for wildlife, and help clean the air and water. It even has community gardens where people grow food and flowers.

Compact City: A sustainable city is a compact city. It has lots of buildings and activities conveniently close together so people can walk, bike, and take transit. It even has paved squares and plazas where people gather and participate in markets, performances, free speech, and recreation.

The Green City is popular as never before. Everyone wants more trees, more landscaping, more living green in their neighborhoods. Stormwater standards are shaping up to be the major vector by which the Green City is delivered — even mandated, in many cases. What does this mean for the Compact City? Is there a conflict between the two views?

In fact, both views are necessary. We have the technical know-how to create neighborhoods that are both compact and green. But sometimes standards and regulations don’t recognize this, particularly stormwater standards. Well-intentioned stormwater standards and regulations can put compact urban development at a disadvantage. They may have the unintended consequence of promoting sprawl, which hurts watersheds more than compact development.

Unlike many barriers to compact development, this is not a technical, social, financial, or even political problem. It is largely an administrative problem. Doing the right thing is simply more difficult for administrators.

This essay suggests four guidelines for stormwater management that support and encourage compact neighborhood development. These guidelines can help put regulations back on the right track, and may also help to make the job of administering stormwater more manageable:

  1. Recognize density as a best management practice
  2. Allow off-site mitigation, preferably in the neighborhood
  3. Plan according to the Transect (neighborhood context)
  4. Design according to the Transect (neighborhood context)

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In a September 2009 paper The Market for Smart Growth, market researchers at Robert Charles Lesser & Co. reported strong market demand for housing in new urban communities. In a number of U.S. cities, their consumer surveys found at least one-third of the market prefers new urbanism, transit-oriented development, and urban and suburban infill communities:

Proprietary consumer research conducted by Robert Charles Lesser & Co. LLC (RCLCo) in various U.S. real estate markets has consistently found that about a third of respondents, given the option, would seriously consider New Urbanist communities and housing products in selecting a new home. The majority of the RCLCo studies were conducted for builders and developers as input to planning new smart growth developments. … An examination of the survey evidence relative to consumer housing preferences in the context of demographic projections demonstrates that the size of the market for dense walkable communities is increasing. (emphasis added)

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The winners of the Prix Rotthier pour la Reconstruction de La Ville 2008 have been announced, and they are gems. The Prix Rotthier prizes are given once each three years, and the theme of this year’s competition was “the best urban neighborhood built in Europe in the last 25 years.”

Not only are the winners beautiful and functional, they were judged to have been conceived and designed according to many of the principles of sustainable development and the EU Green Paper for the Urban Environment. These include revitalization of existing cities and suburbs with compact, mixed use development; integrating land use and transportation for more walking, biking, public transit and fewer motor vehicles; harmonious small and medium industry; energy efficiency and green building; waste reduction and recycling; parkland and integrated soil and water management; and not least, to “defend the architectural heritage against the uniform banality of the international style, respecting rather than imitating the old.”

The competition has done a service by providing tearsheets with site plans, photos and statistics on each of the ten winners. However, descriptive material is lacking (until the catalog is published in late 2008), so this post will give capsule descriptions of three neighborhood-scale projects, along with links to more information.

1. Plessis-Robinson, France

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Photo credit: City of Plessis-Robinson

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The selection of neighborhood designs in America grows more variegated every year. The models and forms of previous centuries are still with us, like big-city apartment blocks, small-town Main Streets, streetcar suburbs, and Levittown-style suburbs. In many places those neighborhoods continue to be very popular and successful.

In recent years those models have been modified, combined, and hybridized to yield a profusion of new neighborhood types in a variety of settings. They include gated McMansion enclaves, suburban high-rise superblocks, exurban townhouse pods, live-in shopping malls, new town centers, live/work/play downtown redevelopment, and so on.

Too often there isn’t enough consideration given to the long term in some of these developments. They are designed to sell well today, but it’s less clear whether they’ll be successful for generation after generation of residents — whether they’ll perform well in terms of quality of life, finances and sustainability, and adapt gracefully to changes in the larger economy, culture and environment.

This is where tools for evaluating the design and performance of neighborhoods can be useful. A variety of rating systems are available, such as checklists, scoresheets and performance measurements. A range of groups and constituencies are interested in these tools, including planners, developers, policymakers, researchers, investors, activists, and home buyers. Each of these groups has compelling yet somewhat different reasons to rate neighborhoods. The reasons for rating can be grouped into six broadly overlapping categories: communication, recognition, planning, marketing, research and investing.

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In October 2006, the U.S. Census population clock reached the 300-million-person mark. After some notoriety in the media, the clock proceeded to do what it does best: move forward. Our nation has a long history of population growth and an equally long history of building new places to meet the demands of this growth. While American frontiersmen may have settled the land quickly during the expansion years, they did not necessarily plan their towns in haste.

A survey of towns from across the country reveals that many beloved and important places were created using a few dozen distinctive formal town patterns. These patterns were repeated again and again to provide a familiar setting for waves of migrating Americans who were looking for a place to call home. Repeating town patterns helped surveyors and state general assemblies quickly establish county seats and bring law and order to new territories. At the same time, many land speculators used the same regional patterns to market their new towns as important cities of tomorrow. These patterns were efficient tools for planning and development. They were easy to plat and sell, adaptable to topographical challenges, and flexible enough to provide for future town expansion or accommodate changes in new building types or uses. These same patterns are still available for use.

Today, when new towns are planned, it is common for those involved to collect examples of local architectural styles, buildings, foliage, and streets. These items serve to guide and inspire the place-making process. An inventory of formal town patterns can serve the same purpose. This paper demonstrates how a collection of town patterns may be incorporated into the planning and design process.

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On March 26, Pringle Creek in Salem, OR was named Land Development of the Year by the NAHB’s National Green Building Awards. The designation is a new category for the Green Building Awards, and Pringle Creek is the first development to win it.

Pringle Creek is pursuing a full suite of sustainability practices. One of the more experimental is the system of porous streets that capture and purify stormwater runoff. The developers call it an “innovative storm water management system utilizing the largest community porous asphalt and concrete road system in North America.”

Here’s a cross-section of the street design:

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Terry Holzheimer, economic development director for Arlington, VA, had a clever idea. Usually the density of neighborhoods is measured in residents per acre. But historic neighborhoods and transit oriented development are mixed use, so there may be all sorts of activities that don’t get counted by the usual methods. Why not add residents and jobs together to get a measure of “overall intensity”?

That’s exactly what Holzheimer did in his short paper, Urban Development Intensities in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area. He looked at overall intensity for historic neighborhoods and for new, transit oriented, mixed use centers. For good measure, he also looked at suburban employment centers, including the so-called edge cities like Tysons Corner.

The unexpected conclusion: Historic neighborhoods are more intense than edge cities.

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About 30 urban planners, city officials, council members and developers traveled from Chico, CA to visit Hercules Waterfront District in January, 2007. They went there to experience in person the new urban development in the San Francisco suburbs and to gauge its strengths and weaknesses.

A reporter with a Chico newspaper traveled with the group, wrote two articles about the visit, and assembled a slideshow.

As they toured Hercules, officials considered how its lessons might apply to codes and development in Chico. A similar development is being proposed for Chico, as well as a city-wide zoning code that would make construction of such developments much easier.

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Ground floor shops with residences above in Hercules Waterfront District, CA. Photo: Jenn Klein, Chico Enterprise-Record

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Back in the day — back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — the Garden City concept was actually about gardens. That is, working, productive gardens for every household. Garden City planners said that working gardens supported the health of residents and the environmental and economic sustainability of the town. Fresh produce and fresh flowers were signal images around which the Garden City movement rallied.

But after a few decades, the Garden City label had became more of a marketing term than a literal description. Green spaces were valued for recreation and scenic qualities rather than food production. That remained true of most U.S. suburbs through the next 50 years.

In 1975, Michael Corbett designed Village Homes in Davis, CA, as a model sustainable suburb. The design utilized many complementary strategies, but in particular, Village Homes incorporated gardens and orchards throughout. That was unprecedented for a development of its scale and density.

Today there is once again a rising interest in local food production. And several ambitious Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TND) are recalling the Village Homes model. They combine new urban design principles with a strong focus on, and involvement with, community agriculture.

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There’s a lot of confusion and skepticism about what Americans really want in a neighborhood. The conventional “American Dream” has, for more than a century, been an house with an acre or so of land in the idyllic suburbs. A lot of Americans still desire that dream — but what percentage, and under what conditions? And will the majority want that dream in the future, or are cultural shifts in the offing? Let’s look at some surveys and projections about the market for neighborhood types.

Current Demand

Several surveys of market preferences have found that a solid majority want large, detached homes, while at the same time there is substantial support for walkability and proximity to mixed use. A 2002 National Association of Homebuilders survey found that a majority wants big, low-cost, spread-out houses, but also that 25 to 35 percent wants destinations within walking distance, sidewalks, workplaces closer to home, and infill in the center city or inner suburbs.

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A column by Steven Pearlstein today’s Washington Post business section complains about Reston Town Center. Yes, it’s well designed. Yes, it achieves density without sacrificing the human scale. Yes, it has attracted big-name tenants, and yes, it’s a great financial success. But it’s just “too neat, too homogenized.” It has no liquor stores, no bums or graffiti. It lacks “messy vitality.”

Tysons Corner, says Pearlstein, is more dynamic and real. Yes, it’s one big traffic jam after another. Yes, it’s ugly. But it has “variety, ordered chaos and an urban-like intensity that puts you on edge.” In Mr. Pearlstein’s opinion, it’s a lot like Chicago, Manhattan and San Francisco that way.

Um, I’ve never noticed any bums or graffiti in Tysons Corner either. The only thing dynamic about Tysons’ civic realm is the masses of automobiles gunning from stoplight to stoplight. I agree, it certainly does put you on edge.

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Bulldozers and cranes are a common sight around the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station these days. In some spots, the construction will be pedestrian- and transit-oriented in ways that are unprecedented in Prince George’s County, Md.

The story of the Prince George’s Plaza Transit District begins with its major thoroughfare, East-West Highway. When the segment was built in 1956, it was part of an inner beltway connecting Hyattsville to Bethesda. Meanwhile, Interstate 95 was planned to run from the Outer Beltway (I-495) into D.C. The intersection of the two highways would be a prime location for commercial development, and so the area was platted with a system of superblocks and collector streets. A regional, enclosed shopping mall called Prince George’s Plaza opened in 1959.

On a neighboring lot, developer Herschel Blumberg commissioned famed architect Edward Durell Stone to design a trio of office towers. The first 10-story tower was completed in 1963. (Stone won other commissions in DC and went on to design the National Geographic building and the Kennedy Center.)

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Rockville Town Square, a transit-oriented development nearing completion in Rockville, Md., was in the national news recently. It received favorable coverage in the New York Times article A Piazza for a Maryland Suburb.

Writing for the online magazine Godspy earlier this year, Paul Grenier and Tim Patitsas wrote an extensive critique of Rockville Town Square titled The Liturgy of the City Street. While Rockville Town Square has certain flaws, I felt their critique was unfair in some respects. Here is my response to Grenier and Patitsas’ article:

More power to Grenier and Patitsas’ message of the liturgical spirit, if it can bring us better-designed and more durable architecture. And godspeed to their sermon if it can bring us an economic/political system and cultural life that is friendlier and less rushed and stressed. May their words reach all those who have the power to effect such a change.

However, their article requires some refinement before I, and perhaps most new urbanists, can agree with its critique of new urbanism.

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