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Building Timeless Places

Hank Dittmar on tradition and innovation

January 19, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Hank Dittmar directs Prince Charles’ New Urbanist foundation

Hank Dittmar is not exactly a household name, but he definitely works for one. Mr. Dittmar directs the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, a nonprofit organization founded by Sir Charles, The Prince of Wales. The foundation promotes New Urbanist development—neighborhoods and towns where people can walk to work, schools, stores, public transit, and parks.

Before joining Prince Charles'  foundation a year ago, Mr Dittmar cut quite the noticeable path across the broad field of American transportation and land use policy. He was the co-founder and former president and chief executive officer of Reconnecting America, a nonprofit group that aims to link American cities and regions through high speed rail and bus lines. The group grew out of The Great American Station Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helped renovate and revive old train stations in order to stimulate public transit and compact, transit-oriented development, which Mr. Dittmar also directed.

From 1993 to 1998, Mr. Dittmar directed the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project, one of the nation’s leading advocates for transit policy reform. During that time he managed the coalition’s campaign for the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, a landmark transportation bill that increased federal funding for public transit. He also played an integral role in the campaign for the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which shifted the near-exclusive federal emphasis on highways to a balance between highway and transit infrastructure, and provided citizens with much greater access to the planning process. 

When he’s not working closely with Prince Charles, an avid New Urbanist, Mr. Dittmar advises top officials on housing and sustainable development. We caught up with him just as he returned from a business trip to Saudi Arabia.

Institute: How was your trip?

Mr. Dittmar: There was great interest in urbanism. They seem to be buying their expertise from the U.S., so the roads and shopping malls are American forms with post-modern Arab things stuck on them. The streets are huge and auto oriented. But some cities are starting see if that makes sense, and are looking at traditional architecture and building as having some relevance.

Institute: So is it a question of going back to tradition?

Mr. Dittmar: One great mistake of the modernist era is to think that, because we were able to use internal combustion engine, we were remade as a new species. But humans still walk the same distance in 10 minutes, look out windows, and open doors. Tradition is about understanding how human scale works with a particular culture and ecology. Tradition is a starting place, and you want to evolve from there.

Institute: Why the rapid spread of New Urbanism?

Mr. Dittmar: I think what really has been going on in the development of American New Urbanism and British Traditional Urbanism is a mutual learning network. People are understanding that the techniques deployed in modernist planning have failed and we need to devise ways to deal with sustainability and human beings and their need for communities that work.

Institute: To what extent is New Urbanism "new" in Europe, and to what extent is it a return to a tradition?

Mr. Dittmar: It’s traditional in that there is a longer tradition of building communities there that still work. It’s new because they are evolving new methods that deal with things like the auto, large-format retail, and live/work spaces.

Here in England, what you most often hear when someone describes modernist architecture is, “It’s of its time.” But we say, “It should be timeless, because if it’s of its time, it’ll be out of fashion in five or ten years.” Cities should use basic design types that don’t have to be thrown away, which is quite apart from questions of style. It’s about having a kit of parts that’s been proven to work but can change over time to accommodate different situations.

We just did a plan in Lincoln, a city in England whose basic street pattern was set by the Romans, evolved during the Middle Ages and Victorian era, and persisted through the 1970s, when they built two big roadways that broke connections and killed the downtown. Then they dropped in shopping centers to fix it. When we got there, it was hard to walk around, hard to walk to the cathedral.

Institute: What role does the Prince's foundation play in urbanism's revival in Europe?

Mr. Dittmar: We create living examples like Poundbury and engage in other live projects to demonstrate how to respond to community problems. We develop new tools and templates for New Urbanist design, then teach them to professionals and citizens. We do most of our education through continuing professional development, but we’re going to have a masters program and different practical workshops as well. We work with young people who train in stone masonry, brickwork and timber construction, provide them with funding to continue their education, and link them with placements on developments and live projects.

Urbanism is a major issue in the UK. The Deputy Prime Minister is in charge of the portfolio of sustainable communities—planning, housing, affordable housing, and sustainable development are national issues of great importance and on the front page everyday. So it’s quite gratifying to come here and have those issues widely understood as important to people’s lives.

Institute: What does "American" New Urbanism have in common with "European," "Asian," or "Australian" New Urbanism? What aspects seem to differ?

Mr. Dittmar: The pieces that are universal are walkable neighborhoods, the need for a network of streets and blocks where many routes are possible, and the notion that housing, buildings, streets, and public spaces are typological rather than based on a designer’s unique vision. That mixed use and mixed income is desirable and that local material, culture, and adaptation are important to making coherent, lively places.

The Congress for European Urbanism charter was modeled on the Congress for the New Urbanism charter because both draw on robust, universal principles.

New Urbanism is not about front porches. The front porch is not a tradition in the United Kingdom and France, so the principles of the New Urbanism wouldn’t lead you to build porches in France because New Urbanism is about understanding patterns that have evolved in a specific place.

Institute: When I read through this year’s CNU Charter Awards, I was  struck by the emphasis on developing regional public transportation systems in places as diverse as Chongming Island in China and Sydney, Australia. Why is this so important?

Mr. Dittmar: Transportation systems are the skeletal framework, the bones upon which regions and metropolitan areas grow. So we’ve gotta get the bones right; for the last 50 years, however, we’re getting them wrong by building roadways and channeling all the traffic onto a limited set of high-volume roads. That’s not going to carry us through climate change or the rising oil crisis and it’s not going give us communities where we walk around and maintain our health by being active. We’ve got to build New Urbanism around public transportation.

Institute: Do you think the same thing will happen in the U.S.?

Mr. Dittmar: It’s already happening. City after city is building more public transit systems, from Denver to Dallas. Places that were built around the auto are realizing that they need to retrofit themselves, and they’re doing that despite small contributions from the federal government and outright hostility from some members of Congress. They’re voting to raise their own money.

But it’s hard for transit to succeed if it’s in isolated pieces. Regions have to build a transit network that is as ubiquitous as auto networks. And the people advancing transit are attacked by ideologues who think that road subsidies are the product of the free market, and transit subsidies are not.

London introduced congestion pricing. It taxes cars entering the busiest areas at the busiest times of day and uses the proceeds to fund a great bus system. That relieved some of the worst traffic congestion and provided a viable alternative to driving. You could do the same thing elsewhere.

Institute: What are the biggest challenges faced by New Urbanist developers?

Over the last 50 years, we built housing and community systems that are organized, financed, and engineered for financing turnaround times of five years rather than 50 years. But we could build things that last hundreds of years. So we’re trying to create economic and production systems that value long-lived and high-producing assets.

That’s very different from a Wal-Mart that pays for itself after six months. And Wal-Mart would prefer to see one of its stores vacant rather than have someone else reuse it because they might be a competitor.

Thinking short term is spreading worldwide, but all is not lost: Even as we sprawled, cities were coming back in the last decades in the U.S. The Prince of Wales visited the U.S. a month ago and saw incredible enthusiasm when we talked about the link between sustainability and tradition, between heirloom vegetables, complementary medicine, and traditional urbanism. Even as the economic system churns out bad stuff, there’s a growing desire and market for the good stuff. We’re trying to increase understanding and awareness of making choices for the long haul before it’s too late.

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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