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A New Urban World After All

With help from Prince Charles, New Urbanism is hot

December 4, 2005 | By Rob Wooley
and Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Prince Charles financed and developed Poundbury, a small village built on New Urbanist Principles.

For those that follow his work, not just his celebrity, Prince Charles’ vigorous touting of sustainability and Smart Growth while he visited Washington, D.C., hurricane-stricken New Orleans, and other American cities last month came as no surprise.

The Prince of Wales actually has much hands-on experience with New Urbanist development. After researching sustainable building and design standards for 10 years, he broke ground on his own New Urbanist village in 1993. Known as Poundbury, the new southern England town was designed to preserve farmland and open space by offering renters and homebuyers a pedestrian-friendly village with single-family homes, small apartments, and shops.

Meanwhile, even as Prince Charles was speaking about New Urbanism in San Francisco a few weeks ago, Petoskey-area residents were organizing a grassroots group to study and vigorously promote a development strategy for Emmet County, where they live. Their strategy reinforces what the prince was pushing on the West Coast: Preserving classic towns and villages, in this case the hundreds of attractive hamlets that grace northwestern Lower Michigan and that Charles would certainly find attractive.

The goals that English royalty and many Up North Michiganders share are spreading worldwide. From China to India to Australia and many other places, developers and planners are learning to accommodate soaring populations, attract new jobs, conserve natural resources, preserve fresh air and open space, and even protect traditional ways of life by applying Smart Growth principles. Like the prince, they have concluded that mainstream development practices are consuming too much land and too many resources too quickly.

“We simply cannot go on as we are,” is how Prince Charles put it in San Francisco. “I may not be an economist, but I am a historian, and I would have thought that history suggests that attempting to re-engineer our planet is fraught with danger and that simple solutions are usually the most sustainable.”

All Around the World
The Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based national Smart Growth organization, saluted the worldwide spread of modernized land use principles this year when it gave six of its 15 prestigious charter awards to projects outside the United States. Winning projects in China, India, and Australia demonstrate just how deeply the New Urbanist ethic is penentrating in some places.

For example, developers on China's Chongming Island, which will soon be connected by a bridge to Shanghai, are planning eight new cities of 75,000 people and 40 farming villages of 5,000 people, all connected by public transportation and bicycle paths. The design encourages light industry and green technology research for the new cities and preserves traditional rural and agricultural activities in the villages by encouraging organic growing methods and eco-tourism activities that make them more profitable.

John Norquist, the president of CNU, sees this as a step in the right direction.

"In China, they're desperately trying to figure otu how to manage their growth," Mr. Norquest said. "They experimented for the last 20 years with creating the most dysfunctional sprawl they could possibly put together. One thing about the Chinese is when they make a mistake, they change it fairly quickly. So now they're trying to undo some of the damage."

Some of the solutions, he said, lie at the heart of local and regional traditions. Shanghai's traditional courtyard aparments, for example, have for generations provided beautiful homes, privacy, and safety for a large population in a small space.

In India, developers are building a new mountain village at the confluence of two rivers. Known as Dasve Village, the project is the first of five such planned communities and offers housing that is within the price range of teachers, small business owners, and food service workers - and within easy reach of their jobs. The new villages will also offer trails, bicycle paths, and development that follows, rather than flattens, the area’s natural topography.

One planner who has worked extensively in India is Dhiru Thadani, director of town planning at Ayers Saint Gross Inc., an architectural and planning firm with offices in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. He explained that more countries are paying attention to New Urbanism because it makes such good sense. 

“In India, resources are very scarce and there are a lot of people, so you just have to be sensible about these things,” Mr. Thadani said. “There are 200 people for every car in Bombay, so there’s a need for dense, mixed-use developments. It’s that kind of sensibility—retail next to residence, next to a bus stop—that New Urbanism is really all about.”

Realities of another sort are turning Sydney, Australia toward Smart Growth. The city is adding 1,000 new residents each week to its hemmed-in, ocean-side locale, and it has no more room to sprawl. So the New South Wales state government will only approve new development plans that mix housing, retail stores, and work places together. The government directs 60 to 70 percent of new homes to areas that are already developed, which complements and strengthens transit, reduces auto-dependency, and preserves precious open space.

Smart Growth Begins at Home
In Michigan, more citizens are pushing for Smart Growth. Beside the Emmet activity, there is a formal land use and transportation study proceeding in Grand Traverse County. There are growing public campaigns for world-class regional transit in metropolitan Detroit and Grand Rapids’ Grand Valley region. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm supports many Smart Growth economic development principles. But the access to regional planning that is benefiting growing numbers of people remains stymied in Michigan, where the state constitution makes regional cooperation difficult.

Another problem Michigan faces is the welter of local zoning ordinances, most of which make it difficult, expensive, and even illegal to build New Urbanist towns that resemble Poundbury or, for that matter, century-old Emmet County villages such as Bay View, Wequetonsing, Harbor Springs, and Petoskey. Many codes do not specify size, location, or density, and either do not specifically allow smaller lots and the mixing ofi rental apartments, homes, shops, and offices in the same district—crucial to New Urbanism—or forbid the practice entirely. That forces New Urbanist developers to jump through extra hoops to get local approvals for innovative designs, with little assurance that they will succeed.

Planners say that puts Michigan squarely between a rich history and a worrisome future. The history is plain: Michigan has hundreds of traditional towns filled with small businesses—all within walking distance of a gallon of milk, a cup of coffee, a newspaper, the mail, and Christmas presents—and surrounded by farmland and other open space. But the future threatens: Big-box retail, two-acre lots, strip-mall-lined highways, and traffic-clogged roads are squeezing the life out of those towns.

That is why Candace Fitzsimmons’ hope for her hometown of Harbor Springs speaks directly to the entire state’s future. Ms. Fitzsimmons, the director of the Little Traverse Historical Society in Harbor Springs, said it is very important that northwest Michigan’s future have something in common with its past.

“People should be able to live in a neighborhood with a community around them that provides a sense of security,” she said. “But citizens have to continually be educated on why people originally came here, the charm of our towns, the hospitality, and quality of life."

Indeed, people are still coming here in droves for precisely those reasons. As Hank Dittmar, the director of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, points out, human needs really haven't changed much over the ages.

"One great mistake of the modernist era was to think that because we were able to use the internal combustion engine that we were remade as a new species," said Mr. Dittmar. "But human beings still walk about the same distance in 10 minutes, and still look out windows and open doors the way we did hundreds of years ago."

That is why towns like Petoskey and Charlevois continue to attract residents and visitors: Most people want to live in safe, beautiful, and interesting places with easy access to work, schools, shopping, and recreation.

Prince Charles summed up the near universal desire for great places to live, work, and play during a speech in New Zealand last spring.

“It seems to me that residents of our cities, towns and villages around the world instinctively understand that we need to learn again how to make walkable, livable, well-mannered—dare I say beautiful, places,” the prince said. “They also want to live in mixed-use, not zoned, communities, where one doesn’t have to use two liters of petrol to get one liter of milk!”

Rob Wooley is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy specialist for Emmet County. Reach him at rob@mlui.org. Carolyn Kelly, who interned at the Congress for the New Urbanism, is the Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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