As the real estate industry transforms, we need the placemaking and urban design leadership of the New Urbanism.
For most of those who make their living in planning, development, and urban design, the last two or three years have come as a terrible shock.
A real estate boom that lasted a decade and a half stopped dead in its tracks — and so far, only glimmers of light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.
For the long-suffering built environment, this economic downtown has been good. The nation’s head-long rush into single-use and large-lot sprawl has halted, at least for the time being. For some in the New Urbanism movement, the economy has meant job loss, bankruptcy, and the failure of projects. This economy has brought down bad and good developers and planners alike.
The last time our real estate economy contracted this severely, the nation’s elite planners were wiped out or soon faded into obscurity, never to return. This group included John Nolen, Raymond Unwin, and the Olmsted brothers. The built environment, swept up in a tide of technocratic Moderism, never fully recovered.
It would be tragic for our culture if new urbanists, who have been fighting for two or three decades to clean up the mess that was made after the previous real estate depression, endured the same fate.
New urbanists have never entirely gotten the upper hand against sprawl. There were too many forces of inertia — not the least of which has been thousands of sprawl-inducing development and parking codes and thoroughfare standards. Despite progress in recent years, most of these codes still stand and continue to extrude sprawl.
But New Urbanism is unlikely to become a historical footnote for three reasons:
Urban reform movements blossom
The first reason is that New Urbanism helped to spawn a slew of related and lively movement/trends — among them smart growth, livability, walkable communities, transit-oriented development, complete streets, sustainable development, sprawl repair, and green neighborhoods. All of these trends owe an intellectual debt to New Urbanism, and vice versa.
A second reason is global warming. As Peter Calthorpe says in his new book (see review here), “Urbanism is the most cost-effective solution to climate change.” Carbon emissions, and the other looming energy-related crisis, peak oil, will be important local, state, national, and international issues for decades to come. New Urbanism is one of only a handful of ideas that offer the potential to cut costs and raise quality of life while addressing global warming.
The third reason why New Urbanism will remain vital relates to markets. As market analyst Todd Zimmerman has noted, two generations will clamor for more urbanism in the next decade. Baby Boomers will mostly be empty nesters — and many will downsize from their large-lot housing. Millennials, born from 1977 through 1996, will move into the market; they are not highly interested in suburbia. “The confluence of Baby Boomers and Millennials is just beginning,” Zimmerman said in 2009, and that remains true today. “So the market will be there as we move out of this crisis.”
Having helped to launch the related trends, the work of urbanists is nowhere near complete. The related trends such as livability and smart growth have the power to transform the built environment. Holding them together are bedrock principles related to the structure of neighborhoods, cities, towns, regions, and the design of streets and public spaces. It has been the urbanists who have articulated these principles most clearly in the past. No one else can play that role as well as urbanists in the future.
In the next decade the real estate industry will recover, but it won’t be the same. Real estate in the last century was invigorated by the expansion of roads. In this century street networks and transit systems will drive a smarter kind of growth. This transformation will benefit from, and offer tremendous opportunities to create, great places. And that’s what urbanism is all about.