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The Convenience of Urbanism

By Andy Kunz

My adventure started when I took a job in a large planning and engineering firm with offices in one of the most popular urban villages in America, South Beach in Miami. This new opportunity offered me the chance to "live" the new urbanism while practicing it. I jumped at the chance of both living and working in such a popular place and rented an apartment in the heart of South Beach. After two months in this environment of exceptional convenience, beauty, energy and diversity, my life has been completely transformed.

The most obvious change has been my drastic reduction of car use. In the middle of suburban Clearwater, Fla., where I lived for 30 years, my home was far from everything I needed. The closest store was two miles away; the closest restaurant was over three miles; the cinema was 15 miles; and a bookstore was 20 miles away. A large part of my time was spent driving from one place to another and sitting in congested traffic. My environment was typical of American suburbia: endless subdivisions, miles of discount marts and fast-food places, and the usual collection of cheap, roadside chain stores and parking lots as far as the eye can see. On a typical day, I made at least 10 trips of up to 10 miles each around this sprawlscape to fulfill my basic needs and for my job. I had no choice but to drive, which meant dealing with traffic congestion and its stresses all day long.
Living in South Beach is a refreshing change from suburbia. I now have everything I could possibly want within a 10-minute walk, including my office. My trips are made walking, rollerblading or bicycling, and they take place within an attractive urban environment of exceptionally high quality. My car sits parked for weeks at a time used only for meetings outside South Beach.

Within three blocks of my apartment I have the following: 23 restaurants and sidewalk cafes, six convenience stores, two bakeries, two drycleaners, a florist, a hardware store, two drugstores, three produce markets, a bicycle and rollerblade store, a large music store, five nightclubs, a large park, the beach, and hundreds of miscellaneous stores selling clothes, gifts, household goods, snacks and every conceivable widget. Within 10 blocks of my apartment there is an 18-screen cinema, several cultural/entertainment venues, art galleries, a large convention center, an additional 80 restaurants and cafes of all types and price ranges, a large post office, four more bicycle and rollerblade stores, another 15 night clubs, several book stores, two large grocery stores, hundreds of additional shops, a large neighborhood park with ball fields, tennis courts, a large pool and acres of open green space.

This incredible variety of restaurants, shops, entertainment and services, along with the beautiful architecture and walkable urbanism, makes South Beach an exceptional place to live. The area is also rich in diversity -- young, old, rich and poor; they all live here. There are apartments in every price range, restaurants for every taste and budget, shops of all types and prices, and a great variety of high-quality streets and public spaces for everyone to enjoy. It is the increased density and compactness of the blocks that makes this variety possible in such a small place where most of the buildings are only two to four stories tall. South Beach is very "alive" with hundreds of people walking, rollerblading and bicycling everywhere. There are more bicycles and rollerblades used here for daily transportation than in the busiest college town.

The enjoyment and richness of living in a diverse and beautiful place like this is difficult to describe, but it certainly beats the blandness of suburbia and the constant stress of driving. The dense urbanism makes it possible to spend the majority of time walking around enjoying the city, the architecture, the variety of shops, and the diverse mix of people along the way. If a walkable urban environment like this was made available to millions of Americans, it would add up to a tremendous reduction in car use, air pollution and the ongoing need for more roads.

South Beach is not without traffic problems, however, and suffers from paralyzing congestion every weekend and many evenings due to its great popularity. Thousands of people drive many miles to South Beach to be able to walk around the high quality, urban environment. For anyone in a car during these busy times, it is a complete hassle to drive around and find parking. The high number of cars coming into South Beach debases the environment for those who are enjoying themselves walking, rollerblading, biking or sitting in sidewalk cafés.

Dealing with the car situation is difficult and costly everywhere, including South Beach. As the place becomes more popular, additional traffic comes, degrading the intimate urban environment and creating a continual pressure to add more parking. The problem is not South Beach's appeal or the number of people coming. The problem is accommodating all of the cars. Each time more cars are accommodated, part of the density and diversity is removed.

Andy Kunz is director of town planning for the Urban Resource Group, a division of Kimley-Horn and Associates in Miami Beach. A graduate of the University of Miami's town planning program, Andy is a new urbanist and a proponent of building new train systems to solve our transportation problems.

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The next article in this series will take an in depth look at how transportation choices affect the advancement of the New Urbanism, and the role train systems play in the success of great urban places.