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John Norquist: From Detroit to Shanghai

Governments worldwide scramble to catch up with New Urbanism

December 20, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


John Norquist (left) speaks with Traverse City Downtown Development Director Bryan Crough in May, 2004. Mr. Norquist says New Urbanism is catching on across the country and around the world.

John Norquist is one of the world’s leading thinkers on urban design and Smart Growth. But he’s a leading doer, too: As mayor of Milwaukee, Wis., from 1988 to 2003, he helped to change policies and minds in order to facilitate more than $200 million in downtown redevelopment that was based on New Urbanist principles.

Mr. Norquist is now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based non-profit organization that works with architects, planners, developers and others to promote those principles, which include regional planning, walkable neighborhoods, and attractive, accommodating civic spaces. Many CNU members are now leading a major planning effort in Gulf Coast regions devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

As the following interview with Mr. Norquist reveals, New Urbanism’s influence is rapidly becoming worldwide. In 2005, CNU awarded six of its prestigious charter awards to projects in China, India, Australia, and Europe.

Institute: Why did so many of your awards go to projects outside of the U.S. this year?

Mr. Norquist: Part of it is that they applied for the awards. I think we’ll continue to have projects from all over the world. We really like to see where the needs of ordinary people are being met—housing, retail, offices, and things people actually use in their lives. One of my favorite prizes, from 2003, was a small neighborhood elementary school with windows facing the neighborhood and a small playground that really showed how to insert a school into a neighborhood on a very small lot.

Institute: What about New Urbanism in Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East?

We have a few members in Latin America, especially Mexico. The ideas are starting to spread. About 300 of our 2700 members are outside the U.S. The ideas are popping up—in Brazil there was a reaction against Brasilia [the country’s federal capital, built from scratch in the 1960s], where the major streets tunnel under or bridge over each other to keep the traffic moving and so there’s no street life. They had such a stark presentation of modern form that there’s been a reaction to it. In Argentina and Chile, they tend to take their cues more from Europe.

But if I had to predict, we’ll draw in more Mexicans. They have their own strong architectural traditions in Mexico: Early modernism, art-deco, and beautiful communities built in a proper way, an urban way. If you go to Mexico City, it’s one of the most sophisticated cities in the Western Hemisphere. It has over 200 miles of subway and distinct neighborhoods, including some just packed with artists, so there’s a lot to learn from Mexico. Since they know we know that, they like us.

Institute: What kinds of projects are going on in places like India and China?

Mr. Norquist: In China, they’re desperately trying to figure out how to manage their growth. They’ve experimented for the last 20 years with creating the most dysfunctional sprawl they could possibly put together. One thing about the Chinese is that, when they make a mistake, or at least an economic mistake, they change it fairly quickly. So now they’re trying to undo some of the damage. They realize that the buildings of pre-WWII Shanghai don’t have to be eliminated, that maybe there’s some traditional Chinese architecture that can be used instead of using the corporate executive park as their model. They’re very aware that they have a problem, and they’re trying to change.

In India, their exposure was to Le Corbusier [an influential 20th-century French architect], but there’s a lot of American stuff and suburban sprawl being built in India. Hopefully the Indians will catch themselves in time to stop it. They really can’t afford the waste in a country as big as that with so many mouths to feed.

Institute: So is the emergence of New Urbanism a question of the Chinese and Indians saving themselves from the American example?

Mr. Norquist: That’s what I say. I was with a delegation of Chinese people and said, “A lot of the answers can be found in your own traditions.” We advocate street networks, grids, and boulevards instead of freeways. And the Chinese don’t really have a long tradition of dealing with autos, so we can probably help teach them what to do and what not to do. But in terms of housing types, the traditional courtyard apartments of Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong are traditional building types that are beautiful and shouldn’t be replaced with buildings that are sterile and surrounded by parking lots that look like they’re on the outer edge of the Detroit metro area.

The Chinese are expanding public transit, although there is a disturbing trend against bikes—bike ridership has actually declined in China. I suppose that as the country becomes more affluent, people think it’s a step up to go in a car, and the streets are being taken over by cars. Maybe the Chinese should visit Copenhagen and see how you can be an affluent, well-respected person and ride a bike. The problem isn’t that there’s a resistance to transit—the problem is the street types they’re choosing. Traffic, in order to function, needs a rich network of streets and blocks, not a small number of large roads that channel the traffic and push more and more drivers out into the countryside. Right now they’re following the pattern of the U.S. during the 1950s to 1970s, trying to concentrate traffic in a few giant trenches, which is what destroyed the Detroit area.

They hollowed out Detroit with massive government investment, and it was a bi-partisan effort. And that happened across the country. Michigan has spent billions of dollars to make Detroit a disaster. You just compare it to Toronto. It was a minor city at end of WWII, compared to Detroit, and now it’s just the reverse, even though there was more investment in Detroit than in Toronto.

And there are a lot of U.S. companies that pushed road development in other countries. In the U.S., road builders think they can only make money by building roads. U.S. companies went into Mexico City and convinced the Mexican government not to put in high-speed rail to other cities, so there’s just a freight line. And they just keep building bigger roads in Mexico City. The current mayor opposes expanding the subway system. With the air problems and the population, it’s not a good move.

But even though U.S. companies have bad habits, they’re learning. Transit is not always their first choice, but if they’re hired to do it, they’ll do it.

Institute: Speaking of roads, how does parking fit into the picture?

Mr. Norquist: Parking is an amenity you need. New Urbanism deals with it in a new way—we like parking on streets, but we think it should be priced appropriately. Eighty percent of spots should be filled at any given time. Parking becomes blight if there’s too much or if it is overly emphasized or subsidized. But you do need some of it, there’s no question.

A lot of parking regulations destroyed the ability to build in an economically feasible way. For example, in Milwaukee we had a neighborhood that required seven onsite parking spots per unit, and there was a building on a narrow lot in a neighborhood where the tallest building was five stories, so to do parking…the first three floors would have been parking. So we removed that restriction. The lot had been empty for years, but almost immediately developers applied for permits.

The idea that parking has to be onsite is really entrenched, but if you build more parking, there are more cars, and it creates more dependency on the auto. Let the developer figure out how much parking they need—you should never have a minimum number of parking spaces, though you might consider maximums if they build too much. Look at Portland and Pasadena—those cities are great examples.

Institute: Do New Urbanist projects need more incentives?

Mr. Norquist: People want a sense of place, and the public is usually ahead of government in appreciating New Urbanism. Developers and architects who produce good urbanism and respect context are going to be rewarded in the marketplace.

What we need is to get rid of incentives for bad stuff. Fannie Mae has a restriction on the mix in residential areas—it can’t be more than a certain percentage commercial or retail, so it really limits what you can do, like building housing downtown. And their mortgage machine is set to suck up single-family mortgages.

Institute: I imagine that makes providing affordable housing more difficult.

Norquist: For all the benefit Fannie Mae provides in slightly lowering mortgage rates, it probably raises costs for good projects that have a lot of low cost housing with higher densities of urbanism mixed in. For example, you can put five stories of apartments on top of a Best Buy, as they did in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. And some of those apartments can be affordable. It works. But mixed use is really illegal in most communities in America.

If form-based codes are adopted and people can build above the store, we can create more affordable housing. Fannie Mae should get with it. They claim its restriction is from Congress. We can’t build enough affordable housing from subsidy and inclusionary zoning, so the market has to do it, and restrictions on urbanism make it hard to produce for the market for affordable housing.

Institute: Why are so many people from such different backgrounds attracted to New Urbanism?

Mr. Norquist: I think people are searching for equilibrium. There were thousands of years of building traditions that were deleted by modernists, who thought their rebellion was the end of history. All the other traditions, like properly terminated vistas and streets and blocks and boulevards were no longer emphasized and weren’t taught at all, and the perceived utilitarian needs of the automobile became dominant.

Carolyn Kelly, who interned at the Congress for the New Urbanism, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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