Come together locally for smarter growth
Connecting competence to organized support is key to reversing the Sisyphean cycle of urban placemaking.
Source: The Economics of Place
The new urbanists have been organized for 22 years, and in some respects they have achieved remarkable success. Their intellectual contributions and their practical ideas related to human-scale placemaking have been widely accepted by planners and developers.
And yet employing this toolkit remains nonstandard practice in the vast majority of land in our metropolitan regions. Conventional suburban development and automobile-oriented roads are still the default way of building in most cases. Reforming entrenched land-use laws and systems feels like a Sisyphean task — rolling boulders uphill time after time.
Diverging from standard practice implies a lot of risk for planners and builders who don't want to get squashed — even in a metaphorical sense. How do we roll the rocks downhill instead and let gravity do the work? The market is ready for a torrent of activity — the pent-up demand for urban places is tremendous.
What’s holding it back? The systems and policies that created and support the single-use, automobile-oriented built environment run very deep, and they are implemented locally. If the zoning is changed in one location of one municipality, it does not change in tens of thousands of other locales. Even if complete streets policies are enacted at the state level, the actual thoroughfares are designed by engineers and transportation planners who have decades of education and experience geared toward automobile throughput. They follow a system of functional classification that still tends to produce wide arterial roads that are dangerous to people on foot or bicycle.
The psychology of sprawl
But widely dispersed, entrenched systems and laws are not the only problem. The psychology of sprawl runs very deep. For generations, the idea of moving up in society was expressed in purchasing a larger house on a larger lot farther away from the city. Likewise, cruising down the highway in a high-class automobile was viewed as the stylish way to get around.
I’m reminded of the movie Gran Torino, when the teenage boy Thao, who is being mentored by the cranky old Clint Eastwood character named Kowalski, finally gets the nerve to date a pretty and smart girl. Thao is planning to take the bus — the location is Detroit, and the kid doesn’t have a car. “No, you can't take a bus,” says Kowalski. “You gonna get you something more stylish that that.” He offers the kid the use of his mint condition, 1972 Gran Torino. Thao is dumbstruck at Kowalski’s generosity — it seems as if the shiny car will change the course of his life forever.
The automobile-oriented suburban way of life — anti-density, anti-mixed-use, anti-walking, "keeping up with the Joneses" — has long has been portrayed as something to aspire to. This attitude is changing, and a new American Dream is rising that clashes in many ways with the old. The new dream is about diversity, culture, authenticity, sustainability, choice and ease of getting around, and the vitality of urban places. The old dream is fading and no longer monolithic, but it has yet to make peace with the new dream.
Richard Florida has been smart about highlighting the advantages of the new American Dream in coining the term “Creative Class.” Hipsters may be maligned, but when they are called the "Creative Class" they are in demand. This group is viewed by civic leaders as a key to prosperity and the path to a better future. The Creative Class doesn’t choose to live on a cul-de-sac in the hinterlands.
Faced with the inability to change the overall power structure in the late 1980s and 1990s, new urbanists developed the highly-useful charrette technique, designed to allow alternatives to the status quo to be considered in a fair and open way. Charrettes are often successful, yet their transformations are usually focused on a single project or plan.
Projects that come out of charrettes sometimes still face an uphill battle for approval as they wind their way through variances and the entitlement process. And, by themselves, charrettes don’t permanently change the political dynamic that favors conventional suburban development.
Meanwhile, smart growth organizations have taken root across the US to fill the political void and support compact development. Smart growth groups have done a lot of good, but they, too, have not substantially changed the status quo on the ground. These policy-oriented groups generally operate at the state and national level. Important decisions are made at this level — such as standards for finance and allocations for highways and transit — but most of the day-to-day decisions on the built environment are made locally.
The competence to change the built environment lies with the urbanists who created the toolbox and design many of the plans, codes, and streets to create walkable places. The urbanists lack political influence. Smart growth activists are better connected to political power, but not at the local level where decisions are made.
Meanwhile, a groundswell of support is emerging for people-oriented places. Developers want to build in downtowns and town centers. Young people are so desperate for better streets that they have taken to painting crosswalks and bicycle lanes and narrowing thoroughfares without official permission.
A young business owner painting a crosswalk in Baltimore. Source: The Baltimore Brew
Bicycle-pedestrian and active transportation advocacy groups are forming — usually led by bicyclists. Health agencies are getting into the act with healthy communities initiatives. Most of these initiatives are not organized together.
In his upcoming book called Dead End, which I review in the March-April 2014 print issue of Better! Cities & Towns, Benjamin Ross presents three case studies of local coalitions that were able to overturn car-oriented land-use policies. These were formed in Portland, Oregon, Arlington, Virginia, and southern Montgomery County, Maryland, where the Purple Line transit system was approved. These coalitions began decades ago and stand out as unusual cases, yet the time may be ripe for this kind of local movement to become commonplace.
Constituencies in waiting
Constituencies for urban places are waiting to be tapped in many cities and towns, Ross argues. The future of smart growth over the next decade could be determined by local coalitions of citizens that will challenge the zoning and highway system that maintains sprawl. To be effective, these coalitions must offer a practical alternative. Therefore, these groups need people with skills to envision and implement well-designed urban places. Those people are the practitioners who can reliably employ the urbanist toolbox.
The coalitions may include the downtown business community, tourism-focused businesses, and even the Chamber of Commerce. Urban developers and firms dealing with sustainability and alternative transportation are likely to support reform in land use. Businesses are respected and can provide ongoing support for smart growth, but they are not sufficient.
Other groups that can be part of coalitions — health organizations promoting healthy community design are highly respected. Bicycle-pedestrian advocacy groups are energized and fearless — probably because their leaders ride bicycles in urban traffic daily. Nonprofits may play a key role if they have a track record in the community. They may receive support from respected foundations who can also sign on in favor of smart growth. The possible combinations will be different in every community.
Maybe the catalysts will be plans for transit, form-based codes, complete streets, major planning charrettes, or events like CNU 22 in Buffalo. Education is always part of these efforts, so why not motivation? Urbanists, if they are smart, will seek out and connect with groups that are already supporting, or likely to support, urban place and show them how to form stronger, more permanent coalitions for prosperous and sustainable neighborhoods and centers.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better! Cities & Towns.
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