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Reshaping the Region With Traditional Neighborhoods

By Stu Sirota

America is in the throes of economic prosperity, and this has translated into lots of growth. Yet while many individuals may be better off financially, our communities are collectively suffering. These "regional" problems include worsening traffic congestion, declining air and water quality, degradation of the surrounding countryside, angry residents fighting to halt new development, and increasing property taxes, to name a few.

Contrary to what many people believe, these problems have not been an inevitable result of excessive population growth or prosperity. Rather they are the cumulative effects of development that requires everyone to use an automobile to get around. This kind of development pattern, referred to as conventional suburban development (CSD), was universally adopted throughout metropolitan regions in the United States during the latter part of the 20th century. Likewise, the problems listed above are now being witnessed in virtually every region of the country to one degree or another. The problems associated with CSD are taking a heavy toll on many metropolitan regions in terms of livability, and many policy makers are anxious to find solutions.

As it so happens, Americans are starting to rediscover the benefits of living in communities that are easy to get around in without being dependent on a car. Developers are learning this, too, and are beginning to respond to this growing, yet largely untapped market. The growing popularity of traditional neighborhood development (TND) and new urbanism (NU) has many community leaders taking notice, and there is growing interest in expanding these concepts to the regional level.

Getting NU implemented at the regional level, however, is proving to be a Herculean task. In most parts of the country, even developing a modest size traditional neighborhood can pose a formidable challenge. Most jurisdictions have had development policies in place for decades that, in effect, outlaw pedestrian-scale mixing of uses. Those policies stress the complete separation of uses, driver convenience and personal privacy above all else. The idea of designing neighborhoods around walking, transit, public spaces and conservation corridors is antithetical to CSD. When new traditional neighborhoods do get built, many months or years of tough negotiation with local planning boards usually occurred before approval was granted.

The good news is that all the hard work and tenacity of a small cadre of visionary developers, architects and planners who have rejected the status quo is paying off. Their successes have demonstrated a superior alternative to CSD. As a result, more jurisdictions are now giving developers the option of building TNDs instead of CSD.

While things are definitely moving in the right direction, however, there is still a long way to go. Even where TNDs are permitted, they are still very much the exception to the rule and tend to exist in a vacuum within an entrenched framework of CSD. Under this framework, individual developments typically do not relate to each other and are treated as nodes, connected only to the highway network. In fact, not only are individual CSDs not designed to relate to each other, they are often designed to be isolated or "screened" from each other, usually to mitigate automobile-associated noise, emissions and visual impacts.

This has led many advocates of new urbanism to the realization that, as long as the conventional system of automobile-dependent, single-use zoning policies stays intact, TNDs will be "square pegs" having limited impact on the region as a whole. To overcome this, outdated development policies must be replaced with new ones that both permit and actually mandate TNDs. These new policies must go even further to ensure that each new development is designed to be part of a greater whole.

If these policies are implemented, the potential to improve the quality of life index for any region that does so is enormous: dramatic reductions in the consumption of open space; better long term health and sustainability for neighborhoods; dissipation of conflict between developers and residents; increased mobility choice for residents (especially children and the elderly); improved air and water quality; a heightened sense of community and civic pride; the list goes on and on.

Fortunately, efforts in this direction are underway. A handful of places across the county are taking the bold step of scrapping their old zoning codes and replacing them with new ones that adhere to the principles of new urbanism. They have looked to the same visionaries for assistance in developing their new development codes.

Berkeley, Calif.,-based architect and town planner Peter Calthorpe has been blazing the trail in elevating NU to the regional level for several years. He places high emphasis on building traditional neighborhoods around rail transit stations, which, over time, can dramatically reduce a region's dependence on automobiles. Calthorpe & Associates has developed regional plans for San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore., that promote developing a network of traditional neighborhood centers connected to each other and to the greater region by transit. Clustering neighborhoods around transit "nodes" also allows a high degree of natural resource conservation that would otherwise be consumed by CSD. Calthorpe will soon release a new book, entitled The Regional City, which will further explore these concepts and include case studies.

Perhaps the most significant effort to date is not one that is specific to any region in particular, but one that will enable all regions to adopt their own traditional neighborhood development codes. This work, called "The Transect," is being developed by Andrés Duany, leading advocate of new urbanism and co-founder of the architecture and town planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). The Transect is a new type of land use classification system that organizes land uses into one of six categories running the gamut from rural "edge" to urban "core." Each urban element finds a location within a continuum (see illustration, page 14) and has guidelines to ensure it relates properly to other elements. The Transect does not dictate any particular architectural style but does establish standards for the appropriate scale and orientation of buildings, streets, plazas and environmental features. The Transect will soon be available to local and regional planning agencies across the country for their use and adaptation.

Now that the tools are available to help regions move away from the destructive practices of suburban sprawl, decision makers must be challenged to see the benefits and embrace this new paradigm. Doing so may not be easy. In the end, though, it will allow communities and entire regions to become healthier and stronger than they will be if they remain on their present course.