CNU at 20: A recollection

Part One of a series on New Urbanism begins by identifying the movement’s many strands.

  • Lessons from the past

    Lessons from the past

    Many of the New Urbanists found inspiration in images such as this scene of the Chicago River from Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. CLICK TO ENLARGE IMAGES.

  • Pedestrian pocket

    Pedestrian pocket

    Early West Coast strands of the New Urbanism were articulated in the “pedestrian pocket” initiative that Peter Calthorpe launched in the early 1980s; Doug Kelbaugh, Daniel Solomon and others contributed to this effort.

  • Village Homes in Davis, California

    Village Homes in Davis, California

    The new urbanists met over dinner in the Radburn-style development of Village Homes to draft the Ahwahnee Principles, a precursor document to the Charter of the New Urbansim. Source:

  • New Urbanists

    New Urbanists

    Project contributors to Peter Katz's book, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, are shown at the first Congress for the New Urbanism on October 18, 1993, clockwise from lower right: Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth Moule, Joseph Kohl, Geoffrey Ferrell, Jaime Correa, Barbara Littenberg, Mark Schimmenti, Erick Valle, Steven Peterson, Victor Dover, Stefanos Polyzoides, Daniel Solomon, Andres Duany, and Peter Calthorpe. (Not pictured is Kathryn Clarke). Photo by Adam Auel.

  • TND diagram

    TND diagram

    DPZ’s Traditional neighborhood diagram presumes that most of a household’s daily needs will be found within a quarter-mile walk from one’s home (note inscribed circle).

  • TOD diagram

    TOD diagram

    Calthorpe’s now famous “fried egg” diagram shows a dense quarter-mile pedestrian shed surrounded by a larger area of lower density where residents might walk or drive to access transit and/or retail offerings.

Peter Katz, Better! Cities & Towns

The occasion of the Twentieth Congress of the New Urbanism provides an opportunity to reconsider the early history of the New Urbanism movement. If one regards the movement as a success (more on this later), many individuals and groups would likely step forward to claim credit.

Indeed, the movement that we know today as New Urbanism (and its close cousin, Smart Growth) may be thought of as a rope comprised of many different strands of various colors and textures that have come together over time.

There is an East Coast strand that was initially focused on the classical traditions of city-making. For inspiration, it looked to the great urban centers of Europe such as Paris, Rome, and London, and also to the “golden age” of town planning that existed in this country from the latter part of the 1800s to about 1930—places designed by practitioners such as John Nolen, Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Olmsted Brothers.

There was a West Coast strand whose practitioners focused more on issues of ecological design and regionalism.

There was another strand that sprang from architects who were designing exemplary small-scale infill projects in inner-city locations in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Projects from this era include Ghent Square in Norfolk, Virginia, by Harry Weese (illustrated in my book) and even townhouse groupings such as Bingham Court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by I.M. Pei, which sit in the shadows of the noted modernist’s more famous Society Hill Towers. Another interrelated strand involves planners, such as Ed Bacon (who set the larger context for Pei’s Philadelphia projects) and less well-known names toiling in the planning departments of cities such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Although many US cities lost ground to the suburbs in those years, I see exemplary studies from those years that suggest that not all government planners were aiding and abetting the outward flight that seemed so pervasive at the time.

And there are yet other strands that come from farther away: places such as England, Europe, Australia, and Latin America. I think of Gordon Cullen, the prolific English architect and urbanist whose focus on “townscape” (pdf download) in the 1960s mirrors many of the current concerns of the new urbanists.

The diversity of all these varied strands hasn’t weakened the rope; if anything, the movement we now call New Urbanism has become stronger for all these influences. But the process of weaving these strands together was not without conflict.

The pedestrian pocket

One of the West Coast strands began with the “pedestrian pocket” initiative that Peter Calthorpe launched in the early 1980s. That work started with a study—funded by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and completed in 1982—of a proposed rail corridor in Marin County. After the study was released, Calthorpe’s ideas generated a great deal of interest within the academic community and some media attention, but they sparked very little interest on the part of citizens or elected officials within the study area.

Since that time, severe traffic congestion has prompted local officials to ask Calthorpe to update his earlier study. The current plan is much more ambitious than the 1982 study: the rail link in the latest iteration, Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, will connect Sonoma County to Marin, terminating in a ferry at Larkspur Landing with service into San Francisco. This 70-mile passenger rail line is now under construction, with an initial 37-mile segment due to open in 2016.

Pedestrian pockets were the focus of several design classes taught in the late 1980s at the College of Environmental Design of the University of California, Berkeley. These included the “Superstudio” that Calthorpe initially taught with Lars Lerup, Mark Mack, and others. Calthorpe and Dan Solomon taught a similar studio over two successive years at the school.

UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, conceived by William Wurster and Catherine Bauer in the 1950s as a true multi-disciplinary learning environment, only sporadically functioned in the way it was intended. The sequence of studios related to the Pedestrian Pocket topic was perhaps the greatest fulfillment of Wurster and Bauer’s multi-disciplinary vision. They combined issues of public policy, landscape architecture, regional planning, and architecture into a true synthesis that, not surprisingly, led to some great work.

A week-long charrette on the topic of pedestrian pockets took place at the University of Washington School of Architecture and Planning in 1988. The projects coming out of that event, organized by Doug Kelbaugh, are documented together with a series of short essays in an influential little book called The Pedestrian Pocket Book. I still see dog-eared copies of that publication on many of the bookshelves of fellow urbanists.

Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson used images from Kelbaugh’s UW charrette to illustrate a concept that Seattle leaders were then calling “urban villages.” The 1989 Peirce Report for the Seattle region entitled Seattle: Recapturing Paradise Lost was the first visual depiction that I saw showing how new growth would be accommodated in a major metropolitan region. It was a simple black line drawing on newsprint, in a pull-out section of the Seattle Times, but it got me thinking about a tangible model of urban form—neither the old urban neighborhood nor suburban sprawl—that could easily be communicated, replicated, and ultimately refined by others. For me, it was a watershed moment.

More than its importance as an urban design template, the pedestrian pocket became a rallying point for a group of talented individuals, each of whom was able to add to the concept first articulated by Calthorpe. That collaborative spirit and working methodology have distinguished New Urbanism from day one.

The pedestrian pocket initiative also opened up a discussion about ecological concerns and the relationship between the built and the natural environment. This concern for sustainability is a theme that the New Urbanists have “danced” with over the years, but never fully resolved. Indeed, some feel that the US Green Building Council (USGBC) has stolen much of the New Urbanism’s thunder with its aggressively marketed LEED sustainability rating service. The service has captured the attention of many mainstream architects and developers, and has become an important consideration in the granting of development density bonuses in many Smart Growth-oriented communities. New urbanists have addressed the sustainability issue with a number of books that include the term in their titles. LEED-ND, a recent collaboration between CNU, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and USGBC, has extended the rating system to community scale developments and placed greater weight on factors outside the individual building. It remains to be seen whether such actions will ultimately reinforce the notion of sustainability as an inherent attribute of New Urbanism, or as another competing approach.

One contribution of the 1982 study associated with the term Pedestrian Pocket was the coining of another phrase: “transit-oriented development.” That term, now widely used, defines the sort of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that Calthorpe envisioned as appropriate for sites adjacent to rail stations. (The concept was fleshed out further in Calthorpe’s later writings.)

Another important strand in the rope goes back to a symposium called Remaking Suburbia that was organized by Calthorpe and Solomon in 1988 at Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. The event was an important meeting of minds: UC faculty members Calthorpe, Elizabeth Deakin, Lerup, and Solomon delivered presentations. Christopher Alexander attended, though he was not a presenter.

According to Dan Solomon, the event was also the first time Andres Duany had been asked to speak at UC Berkeley. The conference has been referenced by a number of well-known planners and urban designers as an epiphany that shaped their later careers and professional focus.

Phil Angelides, a prominent homebuilder/developer from Sacramento, also attended the Berkeley symposium. Apparently, Phil was so impressed by what he learned that he immediately scrapped an approved plan for his development just south of Sacramento, and hosted a private design competition for a new, pedestrian-oriented plan. The invited participants in the competition included Calthorpe, Duany, and Michael Corbett of Davis, California. The plan, known as Laguna West, was ultimately completed by Calthorpe, but due to a major downturn in the real estate market, was badly compromised in its implementation by a change of ownership. Calthorpe, whose ideas received a lot of attention in the Sacramento area, went on to create an ambitious region-wide plan for Sacramento County that, owing to pressure from the development industry, was narrowly defeated. Many of the concepts in that plan were realized in Calthorpe’s later plans for Portland and the Salt Lake City region.

The Ahwahnee Principles

Another important milestone was a document called the Ahwahnee Principles. That document was the first attempt to define a set of principles to which the various proponents of urbanism could all subscribe. The initiative was spearheaded by the Local Government Commission (LGC), a Sacramento-based organization whose members include local elected officials in California and other states. Originally created by Jerry Brown as a state commission during his term as governor, the LGC worked in its early years to help municipalities deal with the energy crisis through the use of alternative power generation and conservation. Mayors, city council members, and county supervisors would attend LGC-sponsored retreats focused on energy and related topics.

During a subsequent governor’s administration, LGC was disbanded as a state-sponsored entity but it reemerged as a non-profit organization supported by its members and various foundations. It also moved from a fairly narrow focus on energy issues to a wider set of planning and environmental concerns.

During that time, one of LGC’s funders, the California Air Resources Board, came to an important realization concerning air pollution from automobiles. The board began to understand that just as important as the automobile itself was the automobile-dependent settlement pattern of many newer communities. Many newer places that had been planned around the automobile discovered that they couldn’t function without it. Automobile dependency had led to the chronic air pollution problems that many Western regions were experiencing.

That realization eventually led LGC’s executive director, Judy Corbett, to a major policy shift toward planning and planning-related issues. In the 1970s, Corbett, together with her then-husband, architect Michael Corbett, had designed and built Village Homes, a Garden City-inspired community in Davis, California. While more suburban than new urban in its density and outward appearance, the community nevertheless incorporated a range of cutting-edge environmental design features. Its homes showcased a virtual “catalogue” of solar design techniques; the larger community incorporated an extensive natural storm water drainage system; both of these features continue to draw planning researchers to Village Homes.

It was around this time (spring 1991) that I was first introduced to Judy Corbett by a friend and colleague, Steve Weissman. Steve, an attorney by profession, was an ardent supporter of environmental causes. He had been working with Judy and LGC to pull together a document summarizing the newest thinking about “alternative” community design. My own work on The New Urbanism book was just getting under way.

A September conference at Yosemite’s fabled Ahwahnee lodge was planned as the kickoff for LGC’s new planning initiative. Shortly after my initial meeting with Judy, I mentioned that I’d been compiling a list of planning principles drawn from several of the contributors to my book. At the time, that group included Calthorpe, Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth Moule, and Stefanos Polyzoides (later the full group of contributors would be expanded to 14 individuals). While the list of principles was still in a rough, unedited form, we agreed that it, or a similar kind of list, could serve as the basis for a “Ten Commandments” for better planning. By naming the document “The Ahwahnee Principles,” we were hoping, rather grandiosely, to evoke iconic past place-named events such as the “Yalta Summit” or the “Bretton Woods Agreement.”

We knew that an upcoming competitive design charrette organized by the City of West Sacramento would be bringing Calthorpe, Duany, and Plater-Zyberk to the Sacramento/Davis area. Several others not involved in the charrette—Moule and Polyzoides, as well as Michael Corbett—joined in the meeting that took place, literally, around a pot of spaghetti at the Corbett house in Village Homes. Judy Corbett, Steve Weissman, and I acted as the document’s editors. Our work included facilitating the evening’s discussion and pulling together a series of drafts that would later be circulated among the participants.

Much of the discussion during the dinner meeting focused on finding an appropriate structure for the principles. One suggestion was to group them by area within the region, such as downtown, inner-ring suburbs, new growth areas, and so on. Another approach was to group the principles by issue, such as transportation, environment, housing affordability, and so on. Ultimately we decided to group the principles by scale, dividing them into “community principles” to be applied at the scale of a neighborhood or small town and “regional principles” applied at the scale of the metropolitan region. A third group of recommendations dealt with matters of process that didn’t fit neatly into either category; they were grouped under a separate heading named “implementation strategies.”

One major sticking point emerged during the dinner meeting and continued through the later review process. Michael and Judy Corbett, both advocates of Radburn-style planning, which separates pedestrian and vehicle networks, took exception to language stipulating that sidewalks and trails must be adjacent to roads. The final wording of the document (community principle #111) calls for connectivity in pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle networks while sidestepping any further detail about the relationship between these elements.  

The Ahwahnee Principles have had a major influence on local planning policy in a variety of places since their introduction. By 1997, over 120 California communities had adopted the principles in whole or in part. Many other communities around the United States have also written the principles into their local planning ordinances. They even showed up, without attribution, in an early version of AMCORD, a set of national community-planning guidelines issued in Australia.

Pulling the Ahwahnee Principles together gave me an opportunity to understand the subtle differences of approach that characterized the leaders of the movement in those early years. Indeed, some of those differences flared up during the West Sacramento charrette, which was where I first attempted to “broker the deal” between the various project contributors to the book I was writing.

Dueling diagrams

The “deal breakers” at the time were (After more than twenty years, I hope it’s now safe to air this dirty laundry!): Andres Duany took exception to Peter Calthorpe’s use of a full-mile circle (one half-mile radius) as the full ridership and patronage “shed” for his Transit Oriented Development unit (TOD). On the other hand, Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s TND (or Traditional Neighborhood Development) unit specified a one-quarter mile radius as the distance that people would walk, rather than drive to access most daily needs. It was felt that if the distance was much greater than that—about a five-minute walk—then people would switch to using the automobile for such errands, at which point they would be untethered by distance and be free to traverse the region in search of their daily needs.

Calthorpe, who was less concerned about the physical dimension, was more upset about retail expectations that DPZ was fostering with its TND diagram. Given the relatively low population densities that were permitted within the TND’s quarter mile circle, Calthorpe felt that retail (and public transit if it was provided) would not be viable in such a limited land area.

Importantly, Peter Calthorpe inscribed a quarter-mile “inner” pedestrian shed in his now famous “fried egg” (TOD) diagram too. But that diagram also included an additional half-mile walk or drive shed radius around the first quarter mile radius that Calthorpe felt was required to pull in the numbers of people that would be needed for the retail and the transit to function properly. This was the part of Calthorpe’s diagram that Andres and Lizz were concerned about.

As one of the first “students” of such emerging New Urbanism theories, I found such debates fascinating. Indeed, I frequently fanned the flames of such debates just to hear, and document the arguments from each camp.

My provocations had a practical goal: As I reached a better understanding of their areas of difference, I was able to work with each contributor to narrow and ultimately resolve the differences that gave them reasons to not participate in the book I was pulling together. But even after the group was united between the covers of my book, some differences remained. These differences, in one way, became the impetus for the congresses that would follow.

Indeed, it was at the Ahwahnee Lodge, over a collegial breakfast on the day that LGC staff introduced the Ahwahnee Principles to its membership, that Peter Calthorpe suggested a series of “congresses” where key remaining differences among the contributors could be aired, debated and hopefully resolved. Several of the other contributors to my book who were present at the table—Victor  Dover, Joe Kohl, Liz Moule, Lizz Plater-Zyberk, and Stefanos Polyzoides—all nodded their heads in agreement.

Read Part 2.

Peter Katz played a key role in shaping the New Urbanism movement as founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). He is author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, published by McGraw-Hill in 1993. He was the founding president of the Form-Based Codes Institute and serves on its board of directors. Katz is a member of the board of advisors of the National Charrette Institute. He has served in staff roles with Oceanside CA, Sarasota County FL, and Arlington, VA (as the County’s planning director). Katz provides consulting services in New Urbanism implementation, urban design, strategic marketing, and community development.

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  • 1. Community Principle #11 of the Ahwahnee Principles states: “Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high speed traffic.”