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Peter Katz Promotes New Urbanism

A one-man crusade for better places

July 19, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Squealing to a stop in Elk Rapids, a handsome coastal village just north of Traverse City, Peter Katz bounds out of his rental car and skips down main street. The 41-year-old director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, on a whirlwind tour of Northern Michigan, is romping through the region’s historic old villages, studying store fronts, summer cottages, and shaded streets like an explorer reveling in the pleasures of a new find.

Noticing a weedy lot, Mr. Katz recommended filling it in with a two-story building designed just like Elk Rapids’ other 90-year-old store fronts. "Too many blank spaces are confusing," he said. "A well-designed town center has one dominant public green space."

Looking down the bare sidewalks, Mr. Katz said more shade would help. "Put the trees close to the street to form that beautiful, welcoming canopy."

Seeing a building pushed way back from the curb, Mr. Katz remarked, "This makes no sense. Why put it there when all the others come up to the sidewalk."

Tall, bearded, slightly rumpled and rambunctiously voluble, the dark-haired Mr. Katz is a one-man crusade for the hottest new movement in American town design. Two years ago, he published the movement’s Bible, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, which is now in its sixth printing. From his home and office in San Francisco, Mr. Katz has helped coax into existence some 200 new developments across the country that are being built with New Urbanist principles. And just days before his tour of Michigan, which included speaking engagements in Traverse City and Grand Rapids, the Congress for the New Urbanism was proclaimed by The New York Times as "the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the post-Cold War period." Shazzam!

What’s next, the movie? "Communities are looking for answers and we seem to be saying the right things and making the right moves," said Mr. Katz, who was born in Oregon, reared in Seattle, and was a marketing consultant for real estate developers before becoming a writer and advocate. "People, finally, are paying attention."

Indeed, what has transformed the New Urbanism from an intriguing architectural statement to a bonafide movement is this: it responds to a developing market for real neighborhoods and genuine communities, a market that Mr. Katz and his fellow New Urbanists believe only will grow larger.

The reasons are as apparent as the nearest 500-acre subdivision. An army of social theorists have recently amassed persuasive evidence suggesting that such sprawling suburban style developments too often produce alienating places, not vibrant neighborhoods. New Urbanists, moreover, argue that because of the growing costs of sprawl in municipal expenses, energy use, environmental damage, social vitality and the like, the post World War II pattern of development will not be able to sustain another generation of growth.

"I’m not putting down suburbia as a way of life," said Mr. Katz. "It’s unrealistic, though, for most people to expect to have the American Dream the way it was constituted in 1950. The true costs of infrastructure, land, and taxes are combining to make suburbia a very expensive option, available to a very few.

"But the concept of the old neighborhood — a more modest house and more modest lot with a great park down the street," Mr. Katz added. "That’s something that America can deliver. We had it in an earlier time when we had less means as a society."

The great feat of the New Urbanism has been to translate this broad critique of American civilization into a successful marketing campaign. Nike made billions by turning America’s obsession for youth, health, celebrity, and independence into desire for souped up sneakers. New Urbanists are hoping to parlay the country’s anxiety about its impoverished neighborhood life into a whole new way of designing and building urban and suburban communities. How? By pulling apart the great big gnarled roots of sprawl and capitalizing on a few individual strands.

A 1992 housing survey by Fannie Mae, a Federal lending agency, found that by a three to one margin Americans believe that living in a good neighborhood is more important than living in a good house. You’ve heard it before. Location. Location. Location. Another survey found that in Califonia up to half of all resale home buyers would prefer a new house. The problem is that most new houses come in treeless subdivisions where lots are so big, and roads so wide, it takes a megaphone to make contact with the neighbors.

New Urbanists took these seemingly divergent impulses and found a very old design model to link them. It turns out their vision of the good life looks an awful lot like what American architects and town planners turned out in the early 20th century, with a bit of updating for such inventions as cars, modems and, you guessed it, Nikes.

To wit, New Urbanist developments incorporate the following:

  1. A focus on compact walkable neighborhoods, where bicycles and mass transit are regarded as essential means of transportation.
  2. Single-family homes, garage apartments, townhouses and a mix of other residences at significantly higher densities than ordinary subdivisions.
  3. Neighborhood centers defined by a public space, usually a park or square, that is oriented to civic and commercial buildings.
  4. Neighborhood designs that include small businesses, office space, schools, places of worship, and recreation centers, none further than 1/4 mile from the other.
  5. All streets are connected, alleys are encouraged, and there are no cul de sacs.

In essence, New Urbanism represents a fresh embrace of the planning and architectural traditions that shaped some of the truly enduring and livable communities in the United States — from downtown Charleston, S.C., to Middlebury Vermont, to the small northern Michigan towns of Leland, Beulah, and Harbor Springs.

In such communities, the public space — village squares, public buildings, shaded streets — is paramount. A rich diversity of residences and businesses, such as apartments over stores, and moderately-priced homes beside businesses, not only enhance civic life, they also respond to a number of chronic social problems, such as the need for affordable housing. The distinguishing feature of the turn of the century designs was that buildings were treated like furniture in a living room, framing and shaping what Mr. Katz calls "the public realm."

"We used to plan and design communities that were an inspiration," Mr. Katz said. "We have the know how to do it again."

The movement’s principal weaknesses, though, are told in the practical questions that dog Mr. Katz wherever he speaks. Do community leaders have the will to encourage such developments through changes in their land use laws? And will developers who adapt New Urbanist principles make money?

During a day of lectures and workshops in Traverse City in early June sponsored by homebuilders, realtors, and New Designs For Growth, and in a separate talk at the Growing Communities and Quality of Life Conference in Grand Rapids the same week, Mr. Katz repeatedly expressed this belief: the political will was building in countless American communities to curtail sprawling patterns of development. In more than two dozen states the evils of sprawl are a primary political issue.

As to whether New Urbanist-style developments will pay developers, the experience so far is that they will even though they are harder to build, Mr. Katz said. Some New Urbanism developments include 30 percent more lots than conventional subdivisions. They also have narrower streets that lower the infrastructure costs and also mean that more residences and businesses can be built, even with room set aside for public spaces.

Unlike conventional developments, which look best in the early years and decline with age, New Urbanism developments age like fine wine, looking better as they reach full build out.

"New home buyers have come to expect a generic tractville ambiance," said Mr. Katz. "It’s attractive only in its newness. There is little sense of what kind of neighborhood it will be after the shine has worn off. In fact, Vincent Graham, a developer in South Carolina, said what most conventional developments sell is privacy and exclusivity. As projects gets built out, the initial purchasers experience the growth of the project as a loss."

As a result, New Urbanists put the focus of their marketing on selling the neighborhood, not the house. As trees and plantings mature, and the neighborhood’s reputation improves, the houses grow in value at a rate that is higher than conventional developments, a sales point that is attractive to buyers.

No place better illustrates the economic performance of a New Urbanism development than Seaside, Florida. In 1982, the 80-acre site along the Gulf of Mexico was valued at $1 million and the average lot sold for $13,000. The developer’s business plan called for him to turn from 5 to 10 percent of the original parcel into $30 million in commercial properties by 2012, while also selling lots during the entire time. Seaside lots now sell for roughly $200,000. And because of the high incomes of residents, the developer attracted upscale merchants and is closing in on meeting his economic objective for the commercial properties.

Other New Urbanism developments are achieving similar levels of popularity and economic success. In the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region, four New Urbanism-style projects — Sunnyside Village, Steele Park, Tualatin Commons, and Fairview Village — are attracting business owners and home buyers. All are being built with an eye to smaller scale architecture. The street and sidewalk grid is focused around a central square or public building. And the focus is on neighborhood and community design, not on individual lots and homes.

Sunnyside, a 368-acre development, includes apartments, townhouses, small-lot single family residences and professional offices surrounding a core of retail and public services, as well as a transit stop. The land uses are concentrated within 1/4 mile from the core and are arranged for pedestrian access. Streets are designed to accommodate cars and pedestrians by slowing traffic with curves, narrower streets, and other calming techniques. Houses include garages placed behind so that porches and windows overlook the street and the neighborhood includes parks and open spaces.

Steele Park is a transit-oriented neighborhood being built near Portland’s metropolitan core. It is 1,300 feet from a future Portland light rail station. Lots average 2,100 to 2,600 square feet, small by most standards, and the community also has 1.4 acres of open space including wetlands and woods. Steele Park is being built under an interim zoning ordinance that permits higher density, mixed use developments.

For nearly a century, American planning has concentrated on eradicating crowding, poverty, disease, and nuisances by creating city and town designs that emphasize efficiency, especially for moving cars. The result is an urban and suburban landscape that has developed many of the same problems of poverty, congestion, and social segregation that planners sought to solve.

The New Urbanism will not, by itself, overcome the myriad economic and social trends that produced America’s sprawling patterns of development. But its ascendancy to the top echelons of new thinking about housing and community design signals a fresh willingness to borrow lessons from the past that promise a more livable, less wasteful future.

Keith Schneider is executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a non-profit environmental and economic policy research group in Benzonia. A former national correspondent with the New York Times, Mr. Schneider writes about land use issues and other topics for a number of regional and national publications. A version of this article was published in the July 1996 edition of Planning and Zoning News.  

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