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Beyond the Greenfields

By Stu Sirota

Much of the attention the new urbanism movement is receiving has been focused on "greenfield" development. A greenfield is a rural area that is being eyed for conversion to suburban development. Indeed, the vast majority of new development in this country is occurring in greenfields at the outer fringes of our metropolitan areas. Such development has also come to be known pejoratively as "suburban sprawl."

Growing desire to limit sprawl has heightened interest in traditional neighborhood development (TND) as an alternative to conventional suburbia. When TND principles are applied in greenfields, the result is a complete neighborhood that is more compact and pedestrian friendly, has a mix of uses that makes walking a viable alternative to driving, provides greater preservation of natural topography and ecosystems, and places greater emphasis on the public realm and civic interaction.

In addition to greenfields, TND principles are also being used to revitalize and improve existing communities, from small-town main streets, to inner-city neighborhoods, to older suburban areas. Many of these once-thriving communities experienced declines in recent years as middle- and upper-class residents moved out to new greenfield developments in the outer suburbs, taking the solid economic base and social stability with them. The communities that were left behind rapidly deteriorated as the quality of services, infrastructure, properties and, ultimately, life declined.

Many of these places, however, have finally starting seeing the type of reinvestment that is luring people back. People are rediscovering the built-in advantages and amenities of "in-town" living that are not found elsewhere. Factors like close proximity to downtown; streets lined with mature trees and charming historic buildings; a greater ability to interact with neighbors; the ability to stroll between home, shopping and restaurants; and the ability to get around without being stuck in traffic. These are elements that were designed into older communities and helped make them so "livable."
Redevelopment sites in these areas are often referred to as "brownfields," "grayfields" or simply "infill." Brownfields are abandoned industrial sites, while grayfields are vacant or underutilized commercial properties and their adjacent parking lots (which usually cover more real estate than the buildings themselves!). There are literally thousands of these sites around the country that are ripe for redevelopment, and they are proving to be the key to breathing new life into older communities.

While much of the redevelopment occurring is itself conventional, automobile-oriented design, an increasing number of these projects use TND concepts. Applying new urbanist principles allows new infill to blend seamlessly into surrounding neighborhoods and, in cases where it is retrofitted into post-war suburbs, is often a significant improvement over an area?s original character.

Two prime examples of this are in Boca Raton, Fla., and Chattanooga, Tenn. In both cases, large, failed shopping centers had become textbook grayfields. The Boca Raton site was completely razed and redeveloped as a mixed-use, main street district called Mizner Park, with shopping and restaurants along a grand boulevard and offices and apartments above. It is now one of the most desirable destinations in the region and is a vibrant, 24-hour place.

In Chattanooga, efforts recently began to redevelop the former Eastgate Mall into a town center that will reconnect the surrounding neighborhoods into a high quality, pedestrian-friendly environment.

What makes both of these projects so special is that they create unique and engaging public spaces that encourage walking and transit while still accommodating cars. Parking is tucked out of the way and does not dominate the landscape, as is invariably the case with conventional sprawl development.

Infill redevelopments on brownfield sites are also increasing. In Baltimore, the recently completed American Can Company complex, which for years had been a rotting industrial site and eyesore in the waterfront neighborhood of Canton, was beautifully renovated as a mixed-use development containing trendy restaurants, a bookstore and offices. It served as a catalyst, spurring an influx of young professional residents and new businesses to the area.

Even larger scale TND infill projects in the planning stages include the site of the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver, Colo., and a former Naval Training facility in Orlando, Fla. Both of these projects will create complete neighborhoods that provide a walkable mix of uses, promote alternatives to the automobile, restore the natural ecosystems, and create a high quality public realm.

Perhaps the most ambitious plan to introduce new urbanism to an established setting is Milwaukee's downtown redevelopment plan. Completed in 1999, the city conducted an intensive series of public visioning workshops in which citizens guided consultants and officials in deciding how to redevelop downtown. The public overwhelmingly showed a strong preference for a diminished automobile presence and an emphasis on creating a high quality pedestrian experience. The plans that were ultimately developed call for renovating many historic buildings downtown, developing new buildings with ground-level retail and new residences above, improving streetscapes, establishing a new trolley system to link downtown destinations, and even dismantling a major highway and converting it into a linear park.

Establishing complete, walkable neighborhoods is an idea that has come, gone, and come again, for both newly developing areas and established communities. As pressure mounts to limit sprawl and make better use of the limited resources we have, the prospects for looking inward to re-establish traditional neighborhoods will only continue to grow brighter.

Stu Sirota is a senior planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Baltimore, Md.