New urbanists have suffered the slings and arrows of detractors since the movement began. According to them, new urbanists are unimaginative, build-for-the-rich-only, nostalgic saps who have given up on the present and chosen to cling to antiquated planning concepts. This from the crowd for whom "innovation" is a de-emphasized garage or a high-tech toilet.
In reality, new urban neighborhoods are from the start more progressive than their one-size-fits-all competition -- if you can call the placeless sprawl that continues to dominate the American landscape "competition." The principles and techniques used by new urban practitioners, if executed well, help to create genuine, lasting places where people love to live.
If the first generation of new urban innovation was recognizing the elephant of conventional suburban development and taking steps to offer an alternative, the next generation of innovation is being realized by new urbanists who are taking the principles and techniques of architecture and town planning to the next level. Their efforts are not only improving the methods by which new urban towns and buildings are realized, but are also reimagining how those places should serve the people who live in them.
In a South Dakota field 30 miles west of Sioux Falls, a town for sign language users is getting closer to breaking ground. Named after French educator Laurent Clerc, who pioneered sign language in the United States in 1816, Laurent is designed to accommodate both deaf and hearing signers.
Building such a town is a response to a very real and pressing need, says town founder Marvin Miller, who is deaf. "The deaf and hard of hearing people who use sign language face a unique set of circumstances that separate our group from other disabilities, because ours is a communication and language barrier rather than a physical disability. There are also barriers to access for quality education, medical and mental health services worldwide.
"The deaf and hard of hearing community has been locked out of the American Dream simply because they use a visual language. Rather than being isolated, Laurent will further our community's ability to build meaningful and effective bridges between the world of the deaf and the rest of the world. We will help ourselves escape the cycle of dependence on federal welfare, dependence on people who do not understand us, and living with a lack of control and full access to medical needs, public safety, education and entertainment. We believe these barriers will be overcome by building an entire town."
To generate a plan for a town that would respond to the unique needs of its future citizens, Miller named Nederveld Associates of Michigan as Laurent's principal town-planning firm. In March 2005, Nederveld held a design charrette that included CharretteCenter of Minneapolis, Minn., and 180° Design Studio of Kansas City, Mo. The resulting master plan for the 280-acre site is designed for 2,500 people, but could accommodate up to 7,000 if the housing types were more dense.
Several specific design challenges were addressed during the creation of the plan, says Terry Tromp, chief operating officer at Nederveld Associates. "The entrance will include a large video screen that will give announcements to people coming in, for starters."
One of the most important issues was the safety issue, especially for the deaf children. At the entrance, the designers created a fork that would split traffic: One fork will lead to a local main street, with retail geared toward residents. The other fork will lead toward more tourist-focused retail, such as hotels, a water park, etc. The thinking is that the majority of tourist traffic -- upon which the town will rely heavily -- will move away from the streets intended for the residents.
Since South Dakota sees its share of tornadoes, warning systems were discussed, including blinking lights on street-light poles. "The hearing impaired community has great technology inside their homes, but out in public you can't warn people using traditional sirens," says Tromp. "The flashing lights will warn people to get inside so they can communicate with others."
Better signage at crosswalks will make drivers more aware of pedestrian traffic, which might not be able to hear a warning tap on a car's horn.
Fire safety also was addressed, says Tromp. "We brought in a deaf firefighter out of Ohio, along with neighboring fire departments. He discussed the signals and technology they use."
Inside the homes, safety features will include:
• Fiber optics and ultra-high-speed Internet to enable video conferencing at higher quality;
• Office spaces with necessary bandwidth available for video conferencing if there are deaf employees;
• Accessible switches and notification( e.g., kitchen hood light and fan);
• Accessible alerting systems: fire alarms with strobe lights in every room, carbon monoxide detectors with connected strobe lights;
• Glass-enclosed elevators to promote communication through glass.
Laurent's initial reservation list shows a mix of 60 percent deaf and 40 percent hearing adults, along with children at 40 percent deaf and 60 percent hearing. The town has almost finalized its financing; construction will begin shortly afterward and will be chronicled at www.thelaurentcompany.com.
What began as a conceptual drawing for emergency housing by New York designer Marianne Cusato has grown into a series of designs that make affordability beautiful.
Prior to and during the Mississippi Renewal Forum in Biloxi, Miss., last October, dozens of architects worked on designs for "Katrina Cottages," a term coined by Andrés Duany before the Mississippi charrette. But it was Cusato's 308-square-foot design that stole the limelight. It was the same size as a FEMA emergency trailer, looked better and, while its initial cost was more than a small FEMA trailer, its advantages over the mid- and long-term were obvious given FEMA's track record of maintaining and disposing of their emergency trailers. Since the charrette, Cusato's design has joined a series of variations -- which could grow into dozens -- designed by other architects.
While the creators of Katrina Cottages don't claim they're a magic bullet for affordability, the fact remains that one facet of affordability -- construction costs -- is being addressed with success. A model of Cusato's Katrina Cottage was constructed in Mississippi and trucked to Orlando in January 2006, where it was displayed at The International Builders' Show and greeted with much enthusiasm. Another Katrina Cottage by South Carolina designer Eric Moser has since been built in Pass Christian, Miss.
The many variations and possible uses for the flexible Katrina Cottages are getting noticed, says Cusato, who has fielded calls from Kansas City, Kan., (officials there want to use them as homeless shelters) to as far away as Ghana. A separate series of Katrina Cottages are being developed for the private-sector market.
"Deriving the simple definition of 'Katrina Cottage,' we have a unit that may be manufactured, modularized, panelized, or site-built, and is 1,600 square feet or under," says Steve Mouzon of The New Urban Guild, which is currently collecting plans for possible manufacturing and publication in upcoming plan books in the following Katrina categories:
• Katrina Tiny Cottage: 500 square feet or under for one story, or 700 square feet or under for two stories
• Katrina Thin Cottage: Similar to the Katrina Tiny Cottage, except longer
• Katrina Double Cottage: Similar to the Double-Barrel Shotgun
• Katrina Duplex Cottage: Indiscernible from the Katrina Double Cottage from the outside, except Katrina Double Cottages have only one front door; the Katrina Duplex Cottage is actually two units
• Katrina Loft Cottage: Usually appears to be a one-story unit from the exterior, but contains a loft
• Katrina Tall Cottage: Two stories (or taller)
• Katrina Courtyard Cottage: Made up of two or more modules that wrap around a courtyard
• Katrina Live/Work: Just what the name implies; live/work units that can be modules
• Katrina Commercial: Retail or office only; contains open space plus a bath, probably a kitchenette, and possibly an office or storage
The New Urban Guild also is working on a series of sub-types, which can be made from one or more of the principal types above. These sub-types include:
• Katrina Corner Cottage: Able to turn either the end or the side (or both, in the case of a corner lot) to the street
• Katrina Carriage Cottage: Technique for raising a Katrina Cottage an entire floor so as to park one car beneath
• Katrina Kernel Cottage: Cottage capable of expanding directly from the unit itself, not just by connecting porches and the like
For Cusato, the Katrina Cottage is part of a larger vision to "take back the word 'affordable,' and remove the taboo associated with it. We shouldn't think less of anyone because of where they live, and they shouldn't think less of themselves. I think it's fully within our ability to change that."
Gary Delise, a resident of Arabi in New Orleans' St. Bernard Parish whose family lost their house and is now living in a FEMA trailer, says a Katrina Cottage would "beat a trailer by a long shot." He told Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Joe Gyan, "I think it would be a nice replacement. Not only a nice replacement, but a start to another house. If I could rebuild, that's what I would do. I'd like to have the house demolished and put this on it."
Meeting the demand for great design has long been a challenge for developers and production builders. Now, an Orlando-based virtual corporation, Architectural Charrette Team (ACT), has removed the barriers that stood in their way; namely, the time constraints and coordination of individual architects, which often produced building designs that were incompatible with new urbanist neighborhoods.
Architectural Charrette Team is organized and managed by Geoffrey Mouen of Geoffrey Mouen Architects in Celebration, Fla.; Kenneth Hitchens Architect, P.A., in Baldwin Park, Fla.; and W. A. "Bud" Lawrence of Morales-Keesee Design Associates in Orlando. Using existing staff members and outside architects from across the United States, ACT delivers architecturally accurate traditional building plans for production builders working on large-scale new urbanist neighborhoods.
The ACT method, a series of charrette-style workshops, trims time-to-market by as much as two years by simultaneously bringing together local stakeholders, the production builder, city officials, and representatives from the architecture and urban planning firms that comprise ACT. While the charrette process is hardly a new one, and while many traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) have been designed by renowned architects, ACT has broken new ground by working with a nationally known production builder, using the charrette format to deliver an unprecedented number of building plans in a far shorter period.
The ACT team member count fluctuates throughout the process from as few as four to as many as 28. During a total of four weeks' time, the team can produce construction drawings for almost 100 buildings. The process includes four primary charrette sessions:
Charrette #1: Planning
Team members begin to generate a master plan for the proposed neighborhood. If a plan already exists, the team analyzes it to familiarize themselves with its building needs.
Charrette #2: Schematic Design
Principle designers sit down with the client and other stakeholders, and determine the desired architectural character of the neighborhood. Using staff architects and outside designers as needed, the majority of buildings are designed. This core group of buildings establishes the development's architectural character. The complete set of building sketches is handed over to the client for review.
Charrette #3: Design Development
After digesting the sketches, the client and stakeholders come to this charrette with more concrete notes and ideas. Working in a CAD environment at this early stage, ACT members can make changes quickly.
The ACT team grows by 10 to 15 members at this point, each of whom uses a template created before the charrette to draw a group of buildings assigned specifically to them. The template ensures that the client's general wishes are observed in each individual building. The ACT group reviews the work as a whole, and pins up each building drawing for additional client review. Because the process is open-ended, changes -- even changes to building types -- can be made rapidly.
Charrette #4: Construction Documents
During this phase, the team structure changes: It's broken up into various groups that control tasks, such as dimensioning all the houses. This establishes a high level of consistency, since, for example, not everyone is dimensioning in their own way. Teams address electrical plans, labeling of elements, details, load calculations and more.
A "cleaner" then goes through all the plans to make sure the sets are coordinated and formatted correctly, with consistent nomenclature. The result of the process is a series of plan sets that are uncommonly clean and remarkably consistent -- almost perfect.
"ACT produces building plans with individual character and appropriate architecture for more complex TNDs -- with consistent construction documents to help ensure the end result is one that will contribute to the vernacular of the region and the neighborhood," says Geoffrey Mouen, principal of Geoffrey Mouen Architects and an ACT founder. "Because the plans are scalable, and calibrated for local codes and climate conditions, etc., the ACT strategy will work for hamlets or estate districts, for new developments or existing towns. The Gulf Coast areas hit by Katrina could use this. They already have the urban DNA; they need plans."
ACT co-founder and architect Kenneth Hitchens points to the potential for production builders to pursue new urbanist development on a large scale. "The market exists. Some surveys put the number of home buyers who want TND at 50 percent, while only about 5 percent of construction nationally is TND. That's a clear opportunity for production builders to create diverse neighborhoods full of lifestyle and housing choices. In doing so, they'll capture a greater share of more markets in a single neighborhood.
"Until now, design guidelines were a major reason why production builders didn't get involved with TNDs. But the time has come for these builders to bring good design to the market on a large scale. With ACT, they can get ready-to-build, essentially preapproved plans for about the cost of a pattern book."
Idaho is about to get its first TND, and if its founders realize their vision, Hayden Canyon will put Hayden, Idaho, on the map as a town that actively fosters business growth and personal wellness.
Aside from the physical elements one would expect to find in a well-executed TND -- a village center with mixed-use buildings, a variety of housing types and price points, protected open spaces, etc. -- Hayden Canyon will pursue intangible goals, such as encouraging residents to grow personally and professionally in an organic fashion, based on time-proven methods of mentorship, for example, that have fallen by the wayside.
"We're trying to connect people with their dreams, says developer Ron Hazard, CEO of Hayden-based The Stonehill Group, Inc., and one of the co-founders of Hayden Canyon. "We plan to create a highly energized atmosphere of entrepreneurship and innovation, people connected to each other and helping each other develop their gifts and abilities.
"We can use retired executives who can reach back into their experiences and teach people how to balance a checkbook, write a resume, do a job interview -- help people develop personally. It's the idea of 'life wealth': an older person mentoring a young person. That's how we used to do it. These days we provide information, but not experience. Our view of personal development is to allow people to discover their purpose and to offer the programs that help refine and direct that purpose, whether it's job retraining or teaching a child how to swim. It's all life wealth. We don't know of any other community that has taken it to that level.
"We're selling an experience that's been lost to a lot of our culture; it's slipped away over the generations. A lot of people wish they had an opportunity to make a difference. In the model we're using, it allows people to give and receive, to grow toward significance."
Some might consider Hazard's lofty goals a bit too ethereal, but his approach for professional improvement includes grounded strategies for Hayden Canyon, too, such as trade clusters for businesses to share an industry or niche, serve as subcontractors for each other, or share critical resources such as fiber optic connectivity. The cluster strategy could include sharing physical space, such as an incubator, or personnel resources or marketing skills.
For co-founder Glen Lanker, principal of Artios Inc., based in Spokane, Wash., Hayden Canyon is the inevitable response to a question for the community's founders, including Jeff and Lisa Kuntz (see "Miracle Man, Community-Builder," this issue): "How can we create a community that responds?"
"People have needs for food, shelter and clothing, but there's a hierarchy of intangible needs that aren't discussed as often," says Lanker. "We have emotional, mental, social and spiritual needs, too. If we can create an environment that addresses the full spectrum of human needs, the result is more satisfying for us and more beneficial for the community and the city of Hayden."
Hazard concurs. "We are committed to creating a purposeful community. Hayden Canyon will be the kind of place that most people wish they could find."