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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 4 -- WINTER 2002
 

Peter Katz: Marketing the New Urbanism

Peter Katz is a new urbanist because he cares about many different things - including architecture and city and town planning. "Physical design is one piece," he says. Other concerns include health care, municipal services, education and economic development.

Currently a consultant and real estate developer based in Alexandria, Va., near Washington, D.C., Katz has a unique blend of business experience, including real estate development and investment, marketing, and a strong background in the arts and architecture.

He was born in Oregon, raised in Seattle and educated in New York. Throughout most of his career, Katz has been active in real estate matters which have taken him to both U.S. coasts and in between - and as far away as the Pacific Rim.

His formal education is in graphic design and architecture. He has a degree in fine arts. He is a manager and the former (and first) executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). He is the author of an influential book, "The New Urbanism" (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994), and many magazine articles. He lectures to civic and academic audiences, using a lively presentation with lots of telling photographs about the urgency of stopping development as usual and implementing new solutions.

Katz discovered the new urbanism movement while preparing a presentation for a foundation that happened to own a very large piece of undeveloped property in a rapidly developing area. While researching trends in community design, Katz was intrigued by a Newsweek article on the work of Miami-based architecture and community planners at the Miami-based firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company. Andrés Duany was one of the handful of people who founded CNU.

Katz and DPZ cofounder Duany began a telephone dialogue. "Andrés got me to describe my ideal community." Katz found that he and Duany shared many concerns and ideals.

After that, when it came to new urbanism and new urbanists, Katz was in.

Katz is interested in achieving for new urbanism the kind of widespread understanding and public acceptance necessary for it to make a significant impact in the sprawl-scape that encroaches more every day on farmland, forest and other undeveloped green space. He understands that the new urbanism must be marketed to a spectrum of audiences in order to gain a toehold in the development world.

He is concerned about the consequences of inaction.

His own achievements have been significant. When the CNU - a group of architects and urban designers - came together for the first time in 1992, Katz was present.

"I saw there was a movement there. I saw the value in what the advocates were saying." He encouraged the early CNU organizers "to focus on what was common among them.

"The history of . new urbanism is like a rope with many strands," he explains, adding that he knows some, but not all of the strands.

"The strands I know about derive from a number of different sources. There is an East Coast (philosophical) strand . that is concerned with the classical traditions of city making.. There is also a West Coast strand whose practitioners seem to be a bit more focused on issues of ecological design and regionalism.

"Another strand . includes individuals who have been designing exemplary, small-scale infill projects in inner city locations since before the 1970s. They were doing work of this kind long before it was called new urbanism.

"Still another strand involves those engaged at the metropolitan scale in places like New York, Chicago and Boston during the 1980s and '90s.

"The diversity of all these varied strands hasn't hurt the overall rope . if anything, new urbanism has become stronger for all these influences. But the process of weaving the strands together was not without conflict."

In 1995, after the third annual meeting of the CNU, the organization's board members asked Katz to serve for one year as its first executive director. He agreed.

No longer a CNU official, Katz today spends a lot of time at CNU gatherings and at the meetings of many other groups of concerned advocates of healthy lifestyles and healthy environments, educating people about the how the development business operates - and what other people in a demand-run market can do to help developers broaden horizons to build healthier communities.

Katz is also concerned about the developers who claim to be building new urbanist communities but are not. Instead of building the sort of mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian-oriented blocks and neighborhoods that characterize new urbanist development, Katz fears that developers are using the term "new urbanist," and then essentially producing the same types of developments that have been the norm for the last 50 years.

"This is a demand-side revolution," he says. Developers would be happy to keep doing what they are doing.

"One group that developers are not interested in is the poor. Another group is the aged who, today, are forced to live separate and apart from society."

"People who work in suburban office pods - without access to the walkable environment - become prisoners of the office park.

"An element found in older traditional places is public realm - something not found in suburban development.

Katz says all of those elements and others as well should be incorporated into new urbanist standards

"Codes are the next barrier to implementing new urbanism [on a larger scale.] With new urbanism, the public has been able to see how ridiculous the planning process has been. New urbanism has brought physical planning to a new level of acceptability."

Katz has a sense of urgency about him - now that the public is beginning to see that the current planning processes have not been working in their best interest, there is space available for new ideas. And he wants the new urbanists to capture as much of that space as possible.

Katz says he is ready to move ahead. "I am in the business of persuading, and I am convinced [we need more] than books," said Katz. "It is high time to take on the marketing component in the new urbanism."

There's a long way to go, Katz says. "The new urbanism has been lax in creating standards. They have made progress in creating the brand, but have been lax in defining what the brand stands for."

Still, real progress has been made, says Katz. "CNU and its allies have had a huge impact on the larger debate about the making of place, and, one hopes, the future physical form of our communities."