Reshaping the Region With Traditional Neighborhoods
By Stu Sirota
America is in the throes of economic prosperity, and
this has translated into lots of growth. Yet while many individuals may
be better off financially, our communities are collectively suffering.
These "regional" problems include worsening traffic congestion,
declining air and water quality, degradation of the surrounding countryside,
angry residents fighting to halt new development, and increasing property
taxes, to name a few.
Contrary to what many people believe, these problems have not been an
inevitable result of excessive population growth or prosperity. Rather
they are the cumulative effects of development that requires everyone
to use an automobile to get around. This kind of development pattern,
referred to as conventional suburban development (CSD), was universally
adopted throughout metropolitan regions in the United States during the
latter part of the 20th century. Likewise, the problems listed above are
now being witnessed in virtually every region of the country to one degree
or another. The problems associated with CSD are taking a heavy toll on
many metropolitan regions in terms of livability, and many policy makers
are anxious to find solutions.
As it so happens, Americans are starting to rediscover the benefits of
living in communities that are easy to get around in without being dependent
on a car. Developers are learning this, too, and are beginning to respond
to this growing, yet largely untapped market. The growing popularity of
traditional neighborhood development (TND) and new urbanism (NU) has many
community leaders taking notice, and there is growing interest in expanding
these concepts to the regional level.
Getting NU implemented at the regional level, however, is proving to be
a Herculean task. In most parts of the country, even developing a modest
size traditional neighborhood can pose a formidable challenge. Most jurisdictions
have had development policies in place for decades that, in effect, outlaw
pedestrian-scale mixing of uses. Those policies stress the complete separation
of uses, driver convenience and personal privacy above all else. The idea
of designing neighborhoods around walking, transit, public spaces and
conservation corridors is antithetical to CSD. When new traditional neighborhoods
do get built, many months or years of tough negotiation with local planning
boards usually occurred before approval was granted.
The good news is that all the hard work and tenacity of a small cadre
of visionary developers, architects and planners who have rejected the
status quo is paying off. Their successes have demonstrated a superior
alternative to CSD. As a result, more jurisdictions are now giving developers
the option of building TNDs instead of CSD.
While things are definitely moving in the right direction, however, there
is still a long way to go. Even where TNDs are permitted, they are still
very much the exception to the rule and tend to exist in a vacuum within
an entrenched framework of CSD. Under this framework, individual developments
typically do not relate to each other and are treated as nodes, connected
only to the highway network. In fact, not only are individual CSDs not
designed to relate to each other, they are often designed to be isolated
or "screened" from each other, usually to mitigate automobile-associated
noise, emissions and visual impacts.
This has led many advocates of new urbanism to the realization that, as
long as the conventional system of automobile-dependent, single-use zoning
policies stays intact, TNDs will be "square pegs" having limited
impact on the region as a whole. To overcome this, outdated development
policies must be replaced with new ones that both permit and actually
mandate TNDs. These new policies must go even further to ensure that each
new development is designed to be part of a greater whole.
If these policies are implemented, the potential to improve the quality
of life index for any region that does so is enormous: dramatic reductions
in the consumption of open space; better long term health and sustainability
for neighborhoods; dissipation of conflict between developers and residents;
increased mobility choice for residents (especially children and the elderly);
improved air and water quality; a heightened sense of community and civic
pride; the list goes on and on.
Fortunately, efforts in this direction are underway. A handful of places
across the county are taking the bold step of scrapping their old zoning
codes and replacing them with new ones that adhere to the principles of
new urbanism. They have looked to the same visionaries for assistance
in developing their new development codes.
Berkeley, Calif.,-based architect and town planner Peter Calthorpe has
been blazing the trail in elevating NU to the regional level for several
years. He places high emphasis on building traditional neighborhoods around
rail transit stations, which, over time, can dramatically reduce a region's
dependence on automobiles. Calthorpe & Associates has developed regional
plans for San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore., that promote
developing a network of traditional neighborhood centers connected to
each other and to the greater region by transit. Clustering neighborhoods
around transit "nodes" also allows a high degree of natural
resource conservation that would otherwise be consumed by CSD. Calthorpe
will soon release a new book, entitled The Regional City, which will further
explore these concepts and include case studies.
Perhaps the most significant effort to date is not one that is specific
to any region in particular, but one that will enable all regions to adopt
their own traditional neighborhood development codes. This work, called
"The Transect," is being developed by Andrés Duany, leading
advocate of new urbanism and co-founder of the architecture and town planning
firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). The Transect is a new type
of land use classification system that organizes land uses into one of
six categories running the gamut from rural "edge" to urban
"core." Each urban element finds a location within a continuum
(see illustration, page 14) and has guidelines to ensure it relates properly
to other elements. The Transect does not dictate any particular architectural
style but does establish standards for the appropriate scale and orientation
of buildings, streets, plazas and environmental features. The Transect
will soon be available to local and regional planning agencies across
the country for their use and adaptation.
Now that the tools are available to help regions move away from the destructive
practices of suburban sprawl, decision makers must be challenged to see
the benefits and embrace this new paradigm. Doing so may not be easy.
In the end, though, it will allow communities and entire regions to become
healthier and stronger than they will be if they remain on their present