A few weeks ago, I attended the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism. New Urbanism is a movement within urban planning that supports tools to promote walkable, mixed-use communities rather than communities with segregated housing, employment, and shopping.
This year’s conference was held in Buffalo, NY, but the movement is international in scope. Many Lowellians will be familiar with one of the movement’s proponents, Jeff Speck, the planner who developed Lowell’s 2010 “Downtown Evolution” plan. However, he is only one of many planners and architects from around the world advocating New Urbanism.
Much of what was discussed made me reflect upon Lowell: What seems right and what opportunities might still exist? I’ll share my thoughts here, but these explanations only scratch the surface. If any reader is intrigued by any of the ideas mentioned here, please drop a comment, and I’ll expand in a future post. I also welcome corrections or additions.
What is New Urbanism?
This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic of discussion at the conference. I originally understood New Urbanism as a movement about physical form: sidewalks, building types, densities, landscape, road widths, and similar. In fact, the movement is a very large tent. There were those more interested in programming and making sidewalks alive. There were those that designed new developments in a “traditional” fashion, others that wrote codes that would guide development (or at least not get in the way) toward that direction, and still others that worked to change the public realm in existing development. The keynote speakers spoke of grand demographic changes, letting a younger generation guide urban development, and the definition of resilience.
There were common threads. One was that all communities, rural to urban, can be built to accommodate both cars and pedestrians. One was about the power of cities is to mix different types of people and different activities to create something greater than the sum of its parts. One is that cities must do much more to address natural ecology and global warming.
Despite its diversity, New Urbanism’s core principles remain about the built environment’s effect upon society. This often brings it criticism, such as art critic Colin Dabkowski’s complaint that New Urbanism ignores racial segregation and pervasive poverty in favor of focusing on “making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous” and hoping the benefits trickle-down. Having attended many sessions and talked to many people, I don’t think that complaint is on the mark, but there also is a kernel of truth that it doesn’t—and can’t—incorporate everything. Chris Hawley, Buffalo city planner, summarized: “New urbanism—necessary, but insufficient.”
Jeff Speck and Lowell at CNU
Mr. Dabkowski’s complaint was principally leveled at Jeff Speck. He spoke at several plenary (attended by all conference participants) sessions. Mr. Speck argues that cities must become more walkable to attract and retain young people, become ecologically sustainable, promote healthy lifestyles, and let people spend their money and time for things other than transportation.
Parking is a key piece of this, and he mentioned Donald Shoup’s High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup argues that cities have forced businesses (through minimum parking regulations) to subsidize drivers at the expense of pedestrians. However, even if the city doesn’t require parking, banks that finance developments might, assuming anyone who would rent a two-bedroom apartment would also drive two cars. In the presentations, Mr. Speck praised Lowell specifically for giving developers flexibility by dedicating spaces in parking garages usually empty at night for mill redevelopments. This allowed the developers to present proof there would be enough parking to banks.
It was another concept that drew the criticism, however. Mr. Speck argued for “urban triage.” It is difficult to summarize briefly, so I’ll do it some injustice by describing it as the following: when choices must be made, cities should focus on improving those areas that have walkability potential. This could be seen as favoring already-nice neighborhoods, as critics worry. In reality, however, practicing urban triage might mean fixing the sidewalk along Bridge Street in Lower Centralville before adding street trees to Belvidere, because Bridge Street could become a walkable link between downtown and Centralville shops, while Belvidere will probably stay autocentric.
One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening (often illegally planting flowers or vegetables on public or vacant land).
These interventions are low-cost experiments that show what “could” be to investors or the public. In Somerville, planners closed off a small public parking lot, invited food trucks, and created a “pop-up plaza” to run an open house. People learned the value of the additional public space and the location intercepted people who would never attend a meeting in a city hall or library. The planners weren’t even sure they secured all the appropriate permits—doing so may have delayed or drove up the cost of the event.
Another example came from Memphis, where planners worked with entrepreneurs to create pop-up events for an abandoned brewery slated for demolition. The planners helped the entrepreneurs secure the needed permits from various departments while the entrepreneurs cut a deal with the building’s owner, cleaned up the space, and planned food truck and other events. “Tennessee Brewery Untapped” resulted in renewed interest from developers to buy and renovate the space to use the first floor for a brew pub or other use.
A panel including Dan Bartman, a senior planner from Somerville and Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, among others argued that planners need room to experiment and fail. One panelist argued that if you try four risky things, and three fail and one succeeds, you’re rewarded in the business world but punished in the public planning world. He argued, “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.” This makes sense: if you spend $1,000 each on four projects, and one succeeds and brings in $10,000 in new tax revenue, it’s perverse to say the other three were “wasted” money—so long as the projects are small.
Perhaps Lowell could embrace this principle more. Many small ideas are shot down quickly because of difficulties securing the right approvals, but maybe someone on the inside could pull the right strings. Murals could be painted. The city could work up a model one-month lease agreement that landlords could use to temporarily occupy their storefronts. Best of all, these kind of urban interventions could be applied anywhere—not just downtown.
Much of the conference revolved around form-based codes. These are codes that focus on the relationship between building facades to the street and the scale of buildings to street blocks. The “SmartCode” is a model form-based code that can be adapted by communities to replace their traditional zoning.
It is centered around the idea that the form of cities change as they move from rural to suburban to the urban core, and divides this gradient into six “transect zones,” numbered so that urban planners from different cities can use the same language. Each of these transect zones are divided into sub-zones which get their own regulations: urban areas should have plenty of windows and doors to make an interesting walk, traditional areas should have porches or stoops, and so forth. At the conference, I heard a rule of thumb that any fifteen minute walk in an urban area should have three of these subzones, so that anyone living in a single family area can walk to a neighborhood center.
This type of form-based code may seem overly draconic to some, but its authors stress that it is meant to be flexible. It isn’t meant to dictate architectural styles any more than traditional zoning. Rather, it dictates how those styles must interact with the street. In return, it provides more flexibility in how those buildings are used.
This is a subtle distinction from traditional zoning, which controls form as well, but with more abstract measures. Lowell’s zoning code is something of a mix, which is common for modern zoning codes. It divides the City into suburban, traditional neighborhood, and urban districts which appears to roughly be T3, T4, and T5 transect zones. The more urban districts have few “traditional” regulations such as density restrictions and setbacks, and all districts have at least one subzone in which a mix of uses is allowed.
I attended a technical session on how to calibrate the model SmartCode to existing cities’ context. The larger messages of the session included the value of a “synaptic survey:” measuring exactly what makes a good neighborhood in your community such as porches, setbacks, and awnings. This type of survey might be a great community-building tool, as planners and community members walk streets together to consider their neighborhoods on a micro-level.
Resistance to Historic Districts
Something I noticed repeatedly is a general distaste of CNU members for historic districts and standards. I don’t wish to overstate the case, but some seem to feel historic districts’ strict standards run counter to the architectural flexibility form-based codes seek to foster. I believe some may think historic standards may restrict positive improvements in walkability or diversity of building use and housing type.
Jeff Speck’s Downtown Evolution plan mentions preservation and the complex association it has with New Urbanist principles. For example, the plan states:
In any such transformation of a historic building or landscape, a delicate balance must be forged between communicating an understanding of a site’s original design and adapting that design to serve modern needs, or even transforming it into something more compelling.
The plan cites such changes as creating the walkway through the center of Market Mills to the courtyard and parking lot as an adaptation that enhances the urban form while respecting a preservation ethic.
Transit and New Urbanism
I got in from Boston right in time to take the bus from the airport to the convention center. Upstate New York’s busses tend to be a lesson about their level of racial segregation, and Buffalo is no exception. What surprised me, however, was the reaction when I mentioned I took the bus: “Oh, really?! How did that turn out?”
I later learned that almost everyone rented a car from the airport and then parked it for most of the conference downtown. Even among planners, there’s a persistent perception that busses are too complicated or unreliable for outsiders, despite Buffalo having no particularly bad transit reputation. My ride went smoothly and took about thirty-five minutes (as opposed to fifteen by car).
Transit is relevant to New Urbanism: several principles in CNU’s charter deal with transit, stating that a framework of systems should maximize access and mobility, and that appropriate densities should form around transit stops so that transit can create a viable alternative to auto-dependence. The one session I attended about transit had something of a celebratory tone, as North American transit use is on the rise, and funding for system improvements is at least slightly easier to come by than in previous decades.
Buffalo has one light rail line. Although its often been called “a train to nowhere,” it had the third-highest per-mile ridership after Boston’s Green Line and San Francisco’s Muni Metro until recent construction stretched headways from twelve to twenty minutes. The line was originally going to extend to the main campus of its University, but lack of funding ended it at the University’s satellite campus. It has never been able to secure funding to extend, although now the agency is examining alternatives to connect it to the main campus. Regardless, this highlights the risk of a disappointing “Phase I” creating a challenge for future transit phases.
This is just a smattering of the thoughts from Buffalo. Other interesting tidbits include the correlation between small block sizes and safety, efforts to replace highways with multimodal boulevards, the precinct-by-precinct planning process Toronto undertook, ways to design facilities that can be used by all people of all ages and abilities, the baby booms in urban areas as “millennials” start families, and much more. I’m sure these thoughts will crop up in future posts about Lowell.
One thing this post doesn’t convey is how fun the event was. We did a pub crawl with fifty attendees, toured titanic grain silos that are now being used as event/party space, and met a guy who dresses as a luchador and literally pushes cars out of crosswalks in Mexico.
Here’s a parting thought: A Toronto Sun reporter consistently made fun of bicycle lanes and talked about how bicyclists got in the way of cars. She was invited by planners to go on a ride-along during one event, and her next story was “Sun reporter gets an understanding of cyclists”. The chief planner of Toronto, in recounting this story, said, “We must transform our conversations if we are to transform our cities.” This seems especially relevant.
 Light rail is a partially-or-wholly aboveground passenger train usually separated from traffic in its own right-of-way. ↩