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Local Heroes: The Role of Local Government in Realizing the New Urbanist Vision

Government officials who "get it" may be the unsung heroes of new urbanism. Architects and builders need partners at city hall and on planning boards if they are to get their traditional neighborhood developments permitted and built. And many of these enlightened local officials are seeing a silver lining in the economic storm clouds lowering over the country. They are learning to take the long view.

The superstars of the new urbanist movement tend to be architects and planners, the developers and builders who make it all happen. But traditional neighborhood developments wouldn't be happening without at least the assent of local governments. And in some places, government entities are taking the initiative, drawing up plans, adopting form-based codes, and bringing in experts for charrettes and educational sessions.

Across the country, mayors and councilors are seeing the limits of the laissez-faire sprawl approach to development. "We're at the turning point," says Steve Arnold, an alder in Fitchburg, Wis., near Madison. The way communities have approached energy use, transportation, and land use is "starting to fail spectacularly," he says, adding that the time isn't far off when "all these things are going to stop working." He sees in communities around him the kind of overbuilt, car-dependent subdivisions that are at risk of turning into what James Howard Kunstler describes as "exurban ghettoes."

During this economic slowdown, though, some local officials are finding opportunities to learn more themselves about good placemaking and to educate their neighbors, to bring their codes and ordinances in line with their vision for the future, and to think deeply about the kind of communities they really want.

Many of them are self-taught planning commissioners who bone up on design principles in their spare time. Others discover the lost art of placemaking on their own and are delighted when they finally find a whole movement dedicated to it.

Many of these local officials come to public service through their professional work as engineers, architects or builders. Paul Crabtree is an example of a local official who has learned on the job. He was a "conventional engineer" for a number of years, but then got interested in new urbanism as a member of the Planning Commission in Ojai, Calif. He describes his work there as a matter of "trying to reverse the trends we've been on for the past 50 years and get good patterns back in place." Crabtree says, "We've been making some progress."

Once on the commission, he says, "I felt I needed a foundation of principles" on which to base decisions, and only in new urbanism could he find that. It was a revelation to learn about concepts like creating an "outdoor room" by paying attention to the ratio of street width to building height. From reading Christopher Alexander, of "Pattern Language" fame, he's learned to ask himself, "How can you repair the site?" The idea is that with almost any project, there are problems that need to be corrected -- the way a site connects to the larger neighborhood, for instance.

Crabtree found that the conventional planning approach consisted basically of following the code and then subjecting projects to a review in the "court of opinion." It's a process that is, among other things, "hell on developers," he says, because they can never be sure what will pass muster. He sums up the places created by such approaches to planning: "Yeah, but would anyone want to be there?"

Ojai has no TND ordinance, but Crabtree and two others from Ojai -- a fellow commissioner, along with Ojai's staff planner -- recently attended a form-based code (FBC) workshop and are planning to lay out a small FBC subdivision as a sort of demonstration project on city-owned land.

A very informal survey of local officials suggests that Crabtree's self-education is typical.

Steve Arnold, for instance, has a background as an ecologist, but his day job is as an information technology consultant.

Lucy Rowland, the doyenne of the Pro-Urb listserv and a veteran of the Athens-Clarke County planning commission, is by profession a science librarian at the University of Georgia. It's a line of work that has helped in her own continuing education in new urbanism, "because I know how to look things up," she says.

Joyce Marin, director of community and economic development of Allentown, Pa., and a member of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, had a career in real estate in New York City before she moved to Pennsylvania and got involved in the "main streets" program of her community of Emmaus. Eventually she became one of the first class of the Knight Fellowship in Community Building. She found the ideal of walkable, mixed-use communities "very much aligned" with her own thinking. Thomas Hylton's book "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns," about the struggle against sprawl in the Keystone State, made a big impression on her. But it took some time in her exploration before she ever met "a living, breathing new urbanist," she says.

Once local activists have educated themselves, the next step is to raise awareness of good placemaking among their neighbors.

"Educational" is the word Mike Krusee uses to describe the role of local officials in realizing the new urbanist vision. He frets that terminology like "town center" has been hijacked by developers who would pass off "a dentist's office next door to TGI Friday's as 'mixed use' -- when what we really want to see is six stories of living units above the dentist and the restaurant."

As chairman of the transportation committee of the Texas House of Representatives, he's led his fellow legislators on tours of Kentlands and the transit-oriented developments of the Washington suburbs. Krusee says it's important for officials to recognize authentic urbanism so that they can hold their own in tough negotiations with developers without getting "hoodwinked."

Time and again, local officials stress the importance of having good models to look at and show others. Once people see it, they get it, local heroes suggest. But so many Americans have been so car-dependent for so long that they can't imagine any other way. Hence the importance of field trips like the ones Krusee has led.

In Wisconsin, for instance, to give another example, Steve Arnold points to Madison, especially the area around the Capitol, as the gold standard for what a city should look like.

Lucy Rowland grew up in Alexandria, Va., an "ancient city" by American standards and one whose Old Town is a vibrant example of historic urbanism. That background has given her a sense of place, and now she tours visitors around Athens (Georgia, that is) to give them a sense of what works and what doesn't.

Local activists trying to encourage new urbanism in their communities have some challenges, of course.

"Density is not a bad word. That's the hardest thing to get across," says Rowland. She likes to take visitors to a particular condo development in Athens -- a greenfield project, but one close in so that connectivity is good and essential services are within walking distance. "I tell them, 'This is what density looks like.'"

Form-based codes take some explaining, too. "People say, 'But I don't want to live next door to a bowling alley,'" Rowland says; they need to hear how and why FBC can protect them from what they're worried about. But then she points out, in the tradition of new urbanists just about everywhere, "You couldn't build Florence with conventional zoning."

"It's interesting to see how the light goes on" once people have seen effective examples of urbanism, she says.

Paul Crabtree finds that once builders understand form-based codes, they find them much easier to deal with than the conventional planning and zoning process. "The better developers like the form-based codes. It's clear-cut, and not all negotiation." This clarity means, among other things, that developers feel free to "volunteer things for the public realm" -- extras like a mini-park, for instance -- that they would otherwise wait for the local government to extract as a concession in exchange for something else.

Another tough sell is the idea that green space doesn't have to be within individual backyards. Steve Arnold and his allies in Wisconsin are promoting linear parks, bike trails and pocket parks in his community, and he notes that "30 soccer fields on 4 to 6 acres don't work in an urban setting.

The educational processes of new urbanism aren't a one-way street, of course. Through charrettes, ordinary citizens have an opportunity to help design their own communities. "We were pretty skeptical at first," Crabtree says, but he began to see how opponents helped improve projects. "I'd listen to their objections and research to find answers to them. Often the most useful input in charrettes comes from those opposed to a project."

He says he finds his community work in Ojai and his professional work out of town complement each other, and that the educational effort he must make is constant. "I do this every day, everywhere we go." New urbanism takes a lot of explaining, Crabtree says. There is inertia and resistance on the part of many people, "but they do get it."

Tales of stiff-necked local officials who "don't get it" are a staple of new urbanist conversation. But what if it's the developers who don't "get it"? "A down real estate market is a great opportunity," says Marin of the current economic situation. It may be fairly predicted that many properties will have new ownership, she suggests, and with new ownership may come new vision.

Nancy Firfer concurs. Now a senior adviser at Chicago Metropolis 2020, she was mayor of Glenview, Ill., outside Chicago, when the Glenview Naval Air Station was closed. The property on which it was located was redeveloped as a close-in mixed-use community, largely but not purely along new urbanist lines.

"Communities have the opportunity to be proactive, time to review their goals," Firfer says. "Right now probably is a good time . for communities to think about what they really want."

For anyone longing for a break from today's instant-gratification society, where most people seem to have trouble thinking beyond the end of the current quarter, it can be refreshing to hear these local officials describe their long view.

Marin tells of discovering a pedestrian greenway path that had been part of a city beautification plan drawn up a hundred years ago in New York and is only now coming to fruition. It was a reminder of just how long the timelines of great places can stretch out. "Not everything happens in your lifetime," she says.