HOPE VI and the inner city
Part Three of a series on New Urbanism looks at the remaking of America’s failed public housing projects.
When several members of CNU’s board first met with HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, they were intrigued to learn that he’d been coming to Kentlands, a DPZ-designed TND in Gaithersburg, MD, for years to better understand the principles of New Urbanism, and how they could be applied to public housing. By the time Cisneros made his 1996 appearance at CNU IV in Charleston, South Carolina, he and special assistant Marc Weiss were already geared up to launch a major initiative with CNU’s newly-formed inner-city task force.
It was a great start to a collaboration that would have a lasting impact on both organizations. Importantly, it also had a major impact on the physical form of America’s public housing, most notably through HUD’s HOPE VI and Homeownership Zone programs.
Probably the toughest accomplishment of my tenure as CNU director was related to the organization's collaboration with HUD. The agency wanted to showcase New Urbanism examples in its educational materials about inner-city redevelopment, but it was reluctant to adopt the term itself or to cite New Urbanism planning principles in any of its official funding documents.
Walking the talk
I was worried that applicants seeking funding from the agency would pay lip service to New Urbanism planning concepts in their written proposals and throw a front porch or two into their designs, but avoid building real neighborhoods of the kind that CNU members were envisioning. HUD’s embrace of New Urbanism was flattering but potentially dangerous for the Congress if the agency was not yet ready to depart from the sort of single-use, production-housing enclaves with which it was associated.
Some time after the Charleston conference, several members of CNU’s board and its inner-city task force met with Cisneros and his deputy directors for a New Urbanism “show-and-tell” in Washington, DC. We were told we’d be lucky to get 20 minutes with the Secretary Cisneros, but the session ran nearly two hours. Those present came away with the sense that the Secretary had a great passion for matters of place, and also for the personal transformation that was possible when people lived in improved physical surroundings.
That was the fun part of my visit to HUD. Later that day, I adjourned to meet with agency staff who were putting the finishing touches on a “Notice of Funds Availability” (NOFA) for a new round of HOPE IV projects. The NOFA is the document that defines the official criteria for determining which projects will receive funding and which will not.
True to my suspicions, several HUD staffers and the agency’s lawyers were dead set against changing the legal language of the NOFA, even while other staffers were sprinkling our images and text throughout the educational materials that accompany the funding document. Since relations with the secretary and his senior staff were excellent at the time, I decided to go to the mat on the issue. I insisted on language that specified New Urbanism by name and clearly stated the defining principles of the movement.
Ultimately the lawyers at HUD acquiesced: The language I was requesting went in to the NOFA1 and, as far as I know, remained in, at least for a number of funding cycles, generating thousands of housing units in communities planned by some of best urban designers in the country.
The HUD relationship taught me a lot about what can be accomplished with a small, yet determined group of people with a clearly defined vision. With our 600 members at the time and an operating budget under $100,000, CNU seemed, in relation to HUD, like a flea on the back of an elephant. HUD, a multibillion-dollar government bureaucracy employing thousands of people, to my surprise, did not have a single staffer whose sole focus was the physical design of communities!
HUD’s planning vacuum meant opportunity for CNU. When CNU appeared on the scene, there was little understanding of New Urbanism within the agency, but no real opposition. HUD listened to what CNU had to say and (after negotiating a few twists and turns in the road) simply responded: “OK, sounds good; let’s do it.” Again, having Cisneros and his special assistant Marc Weiss on board was key to the swift adoption of our now-shared agenda and it gave CNU the ability to overcome mid-level bureaucratic objections.
Importantly, the HUD relationship provided the impetus for CNU to strengthen ties with individuals such as Ray Gindroz of Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh and Joan Goody of Goody Clancy in Boston. Both exemplify the sort of person that I mentioned in earlier installments in this series, who had been doing great inner-city urban design work for decades but didn’t call it New Urbanism.
The CNU/HUD initiative moves forward
Ray Gindroz was tapped by the board at CNU IV to serve as co-chair of the organization’s inner-city task force. Joan Goody participated in the first jointly sponsored CNU/HUD planning workshop for public housing providers. That event, drawing a national audience, was convened on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996. During a site tour that was part of the workshop, attendees had the opportunity to visit several new and revitalized inner-city projects designed by Goody’s firm.
The HUD outreach helped to deflect mounting criticism that the New Urbanism was primarily a new growth strategy aimed at well to do would-be suburbanites, or worse still, yuppie gentrifiers. This perception continues to dog the movement, in my opinion, as a result of the sheer visibility of the New Urbanism’s highly successful greenfield projects. Successful infill projects, on the other hand, tend to disappear into their surroundings after they are implemented, as they should.
Because the discussion rarely went beyond Kentlands, Laguna West, and the resort community of Seaside, observers in those early days were left with the impression that such projects were the sole focus of the movement. With the HUD relationship, CNU finally had an infill “story” that could compete with its better known new-growth examples.
As of 2009, HOPE VI had provided 111,000 new and renovated housing units on 240 sites in cities throughout the US. Approximately 91,000 severely distressed public housing units were demolished. The HUD initiative was gratifying because it was the first time since the Model Cities program of the 1960 that federal government seemed to be paying attention to cities.
Other strong voices from the administration
Indeed, Cisneros was not the only leader within the Clinton administration who was talking about cities in terms that reflected new urban sensibilities. In 1998, in a speech at the Brookings Institution, Vice President Al Gore made these comments:
Many of our walkable main streets have emptied out and their small shops closed, one by one, leaving a night-time vacuum for crime and disorder. Acre upon acre of asphalt transform what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots. The ill-thought-out sprawl, hastily developed around our nation’s cities, has turned what used to be friendly, easy suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs so distant from the city center that if a family wants to buy an affordable house, they have to drive so far that a parent gets home too late to read a bedtime story. In many such developments, an absence of sidewalks, amenities and green spaces discourage walking, bicycling and planting. Kids learn more about Nintendo and isolation than fresh air and taking turns.
Gore ended his address with a more hopeful prognosis:
A livable suburb or city is one that lets us get home after work fast so we can spend more time with friends and family and less time stuck in traffic. It’s one that restores and sustains our historic neighborhoods so they are not abandoned and bulldozed under, but are alive with shops and cultural events. It’s one that preserves among the new developments some family farms and green spaces so that, even in the age of cyberspace, kids can still grow up knowing what it is like to eat locally grown produce or toss a ball in an open field on a summer evening. Most of us can’t afford to travel to Yellowstone or to Grand Canyon when we want to enjoy the rich American landscape. A livable neighborhood lets you and your spouse walk through a natural ecosystem as you simply take an evening stroll down your street.
Thus, by the end of the 20th century some of the most basic ideas of the New Urbanism had penetrated a major federal agency and reached the second-highest office in the land. The fact that senior public officials like Gore had started to consider these issues was quite an accomplishment.
After Gore's near miss in his bid for the presidency, he went on to reinvent himself as a passionate spokesperson for the environment. His Oscar-winning presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, helped to define global climate change as the most pressing environmental issue of our time.
Although new urbanists and smart growth advocates were disappointed at Gore's failure to connect the issue to community settlement patterns, recent laws such as California's AB 32 and SB 375 make the link. Vision California, a high-profile state initiative, is aimed at advancing compliance with the new laws. Guided by Peter Calthorpe, this initiative is expected to set an implementation framework that employs New Urbanism principles to achieve lower environmental impacts and greater resource efficiency.
Looking back, it seems as if the last two decades may have been the honeymoon for New Urbanism and Smart Growth. While most citizens cared little for the idea of “compact, pedestrian friendly, urban places” (read density), at least they felt it was OK for others to live that way, perhaps thinking there’d be more land for them to live out the suburban dream of a large home on a large lot, and fewer cars to block their path on the multi-lane arterial.
With rise of the Tea Party movement and fears of a global conspiracy involving the United Nations and its Agenda 21 lurking behind every local smart growth program and infill development, reform movements such as the New Urbanism now have their work cut out for them. Because the message is no longer new, and because the proponents of New Urbanism have failed to achieve the miracles that were once expected of them, the challenges are now greater than ever.
Next: Peter Katz opines on the successes of the New Urbanism and its one major failure.
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. Language from NOFA for Homeownership Zones describing New Urbanism (Official name: [Docket No. FR-4065-N-01] Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) and Program Guidelines for the Economic Development Initiative (EDI) issued by Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development), Item 9 on page 10 excerpted below: “Homeownership Zones should strive to incorporate several of the basic principles of the New Urbanism. Neighborhoods that have been designed according to these principles have typically had a finite size, defined by a comfortable walking distance from their center, and have included, for example, such characteristics as: a mix of compatible uses such as housing, shops, workplaces, parks, civic and cultural institutions; a mix of housing types to accommodate a range of incomes, ages and lifestyles; buildings with architectural variety; at the center, a public gathering place such as a square or green, one or several public buildings such as a library, community center or daycare center, and a connection to transit; edges defined by boulevards, greenbelts or other natural features; and a network of pedestrian-friendly streets, alleys and blocks that encourage connection with adjacent neighborhoods.”