The concept of new urbanism, which arose in the United States during the 1980s, promoted the kind of mixed-use developments that were natural to American cities before the dominance of the automobile.
New urbanism proposed that neighborhoods be walkable and jobs and stores not be separated from residential.
Not much has changed with the movement except urban planners have had 30 years to tweak the basic ideas, and new studies and broad-based design concepts continue to emerge.
Recently, I came across a study by Christopher Leinberger of George Washington University’s School of Business that focused on walkable urban neighborhoods, particularly those in the local Washington, D.C., area.
Leinberger wrote: "Walkable urban development calls for dramatically different approaches to urban design and planning, regulation, financing and construction. Most importantly, it also requires the introduction of a new industry: place management. The new field develops the strategy and provides the day-to-day management for walkable urban places, creating a distinctive ‘could only be here’ place in which investors and residents seem willing to invest for the long term."
Leinberger even created a name for walkable urban places: Walk Ups.
While it was a cute bit of phrasing, the urban planner that caught my attention was Todd Meyer of the SWA Group in Houston.
He, too, created a new phrase in the new urbanism lexicon, "cultural urbanism," which, if I’m translating him correctly, means: We really should celebrate our regional differences by embracing the idea that urban environments in different areas are really melting pots with people from regional-specific, socio-ethnic backgrounds, and we really should strive to build our city, towns and neighborhoods in ways that reflect the regional distinctions of housing, workplace, retail and entertainment functions.
The key issue for Meyer with cultural urbanism is that too often the big national developers steamroll the same type of design into whatever landscape they parachute into at the moment, whether it is Shreveport, La., Tucson, Ariz., or Helena, Mont. Cultural urbanism, distilled down, simply means celebrate in design the uniqueness of the individual location.
The core of culture urbanism is a rebellion against the "vanillafication of the suburbs," Meyer said. "It doesn’t really matter if you are in the Dallas suburbs or the Atlanta suburbs or the Denver suburbs. Many of them are starting to look the same and have no character. They are not authentic environments that have grown up over time. Many people are craving that authentic urban experience and the social interaction that comes along with it."
Developers have their model and their pro formas that work and they don’t necessarily like to reinvent the wheel each time they go from place to place, so everything is the same wherever we go.
What Meyer is saying is, we should really celebrate where we are and tie urban design into the concepts of where we are. So, something builders are designing in Florida should be different from what they are designing in Colorado or Utah.
One of Meyer’s best examples is City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City, a large, mixed-use development with which I’m very familiar, having recently spent a number of days in the Beehive State. During the heart of the Great Recession, City Creek was the largest mixed-use shopping mall development in the country, and while I was in town I wanted to see what had been created.
The project was done on a grand scale, with high-rise apartment and condominium towers, office developments and an indoor-outdoor shopping mall. As I walked through the project, one of the things I thought nicely done was the water feature that ran through the outdoor shopping space. At the time, I hadn’t interviewed Meyer and just thought it was a good design element that tied the whole project together.
Then I interviewed Meyer for this column and I was surprised when he used City Creek as an example of cultural urbanism.
"We recently completed a project in Salt Lake City, a mixed-use development, mostly commercial, office and retail," he began. "In the center of it is literally a trout stream in a downtown, urban setting. And it is really trying to tie into the concept of that fact that there was a creek that was running through this site, celebrating that as an amenity, and reminding people where they are in the mountains. We were creating a unique urban space for the people of Salt Lake City."
To which he added, "Many people enjoy observing other people and meeting other people and being where the action is. A lot of what we are saying is not the architecture of the building that has to change dramatically from place to place, but it’s really the spaces between the buildings that are facilitating a sense of community and where people can spend time in the public realm."
Meyer is based in Houston so I chided him on the blandness of his city’s urban development and yawning suburban sprawl.
He didn’t deny Houston as a big city had a design-identity problem, but he did say things there are beginning to change.
"This is a relatively new city that has grown up around the freeway and automobile. With its lack of zoning it has more in common with Los Angeles than New York," he said. "One of the things the city has been focused on is this idea of landscape infrastructure. Using the only identifiable feature that we have in the Houston landscape, our bayous, which are essentially large streams or small rivers, and they become linear open spaces that are really well used by many people in the community.
"Short of having a bay or the hills, we have these linear open space corridors that are used for drainage and flood control, but they are also used widely as linear open spaces that help to define the public realm."
The other thing Houston has done is relook at its downtown, he continued. "We recently added a project called Discovery Green that is right in front of our convention center, and some of the city’s priciest real estate is now trading hands after Discovery Green went in. It’s a space that has everything from water features to an amphitheater, food and beverage."
That led me to ask, "Which comes first in new urbanism: the people or the projects?"
"It can happen one of two ways," Meyer answered. "There are the people that are willing to move into an area before all the amenities are there and then the amenities follow. Or, as in Houston, the Discovery Green went in and now there is a lot more interest in development around that amenity."