Beyond the Greenfields
By Stu Sirota
Much of the attention the new urbanism movement is receiving
has been focused on "greenfield" development. A greenfield is
a rural area that is being eyed for conversion to suburban development.
Indeed, the vast majority of new development in this country is occurring
in greenfields at the outer fringes of our metropolitan areas. Such development
has also come to be known pejoratively as "suburban sprawl."
Growing desire to limit sprawl has heightened interest in traditional
neighborhood development (TND) as an alternative to conventional suburbia.
When TND principles are applied in greenfields, the result is a complete
neighborhood that is more compact and pedestrian friendly, has a mix of
uses that makes walking a viable alternative to driving, provides greater
preservation of natural topography and ecosystems, and places greater
emphasis on the public realm and civic interaction.
In addition to greenfields, TND principles are also being used to revitalize
and improve existing communities, from small-town main streets, to inner-city
neighborhoods, to older suburban areas. Many of these once-thriving communities
experienced declines in recent years as middle- and upper-class residents
moved out to new greenfield developments in the outer suburbs, taking
the solid economic base and social stability with them. The communities
that were left behind rapidly deteriorated as the quality of services,
infrastructure, properties and, ultimately, life declined.
Many of these places, however, have finally starting seeing the type of
reinvestment that is luring people back. People are rediscovering the
built-in advantages and amenities of "in-town" living that are
not found elsewhere. Factors like close proximity to downtown; streets
lined with mature trees and charming historic buildings; a greater ability
to interact with neighbors; the ability to stroll between home, shopping
and restaurants; and the ability to get around without being stuck in
traffic. These are elements that were designed into older communities
and helped make them so "livable."
Redevelopment sites in these areas are often referred to as "brownfields,"
"grayfields" or simply "infill." Brownfields are abandoned
industrial sites, while grayfields are vacant or underutilized commercial
properties and their adjacent parking lots (which usually cover more real
estate than the buildings themselves!). There are literally thousands
of these sites around the country that are ripe for redevelopment, and
they are proving to be the key to breathing new life into older communities.
While much of the redevelopment occurring is itself conventional, automobile-oriented
design, an increasing number of these projects use TND concepts. Applying
new urbanist principles allows new infill to blend seamlessly into surrounding
neighborhoods and, in cases where it is retrofitted into post-war suburbs,
is often a significant improvement over an area?s original character.
Two prime examples of this are in Boca Raton, Fla., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
In both cases, large, failed shopping centers had become textbook grayfields.
The Boca Raton site was completely razed and redeveloped as a mixed-use,
main street district called Mizner Park, with shopping and restaurants
along a grand boulevard and offices and apartments above. It is now one
of the most desirable destinations in the region and is a vibrant, 24-hour
In Chattanooga, efforts recently began to redevelop the former Eastgate
Mall into a town center that will reconnect the surrounding neighborhoods
into a high quality, pedestrian-friendly environment.
What makes both of these projects so special is that they create unique
and engaging public spaces that encourage walking and transit while still
accommodating cars. Parking is tucked out of the way and does not dominate
the landscape, as is invariably the case with conventional sprawl development.
Infill redevelopments on brownfield sites are also increasing. In Baltimore,
the recently completed American Can Company complex, which for years had
been a rotting industrial site and eyesore in the waterfront neighborhood
of Canton, was beautifully renovated as a mixed-use development containing
trendy restaurants, a bookstore and offices. It served as a catalyst,
spurring an influx of young professional residents and new businesses
to the area.
Even larger scale TND infill projects in the planning stages include the
site of the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver, Colo., and
a former Naval Training facility in Orlando, Fla. Both of these projects
will create complete neighborhoods that provide a walkable mix of uses,
promote alternatives to the automobile, restore the natural ecosystems,
and create a high quality public realm.
Perhaps the most ambitious plan to introduce new urbanism to an established
setting is Milwaukee's downtown redevelopment plan. Completed in 1999,
the city conducted an intensive series of public visioning workshops in
which citizens guided consultants and officials in deciding how to redevelop
downtown. The public overwhelmingly showed a strong preference for a diminished
automobile presence and an emphasis on creating a high quality pedestrian
experience. The plans that were ultimately developed call for renovating
many historic buildings downtown, developing new buildings with ground-level
retail and new residences above, improving streetscapes, establishing
a new trolley system to link downtown destinations, and even dismantling
a major highway and converting it into a linear park.
Establishing complete, walkable neighborhoods is an idea that has come,
gone, and come again, for both newly developing areas and established
communities. As pressure mounts to limit sprawl and make better use of
the limited resources we have, the prospects for looking inward to re-establish
traditional neighborhoods will only continue to grow brighter.
Stu Sirota is a senior planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Baltimore,