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Duany, Norquist call for New Urbanism renewal

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/30/13 @ 5:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

A city evolves like a forest from grass to savannah to climate forest, says Congress for New Urbanism co-founder Andres Duany. He calls it successional urbanism.

On a new track<br />Salt Lake City invested $300 million in its Trax light rail, a six-mile line that has spurred billions in development downtown.

Duany makes the case that cities are constantly being built and razed, and that framework pervades CNU’s 21st anniversary of their Charter here in Salt Lake City. Mormon founding father Brigham Young had a vision of cities laid out on a grid with large (132 feet from center of two bounding roads) blocks. But Young’s idea, Duany suggests, was the basis for today’s Form Based Code.

A form-based code, according to Emily Talen, is meant to concentrate use and density in places where it should be.

“The largest block was meant to be cut down,” Duany said. “The streets are meant to have extraordinary diversity within it.”

Suburban sprawl drained the resources from the city, and the blocks never got as fine-grained as Young envisioned, Duany says. “The lesson is to design so that you know who is going to make the decision when.”

What he’s saying is the basis for how a form-based code is supposed to work. They should be simple, based on the ideas of a Transect (from most dense in the center to still dense enough at the city edge to accommodate less expensive uses like warehouses or even single story storefronts. CNU, he says, needs to fight for simpler codes so that “young people can squat in those places first, then we bring them up to code later.”

He laments how CNU let go of its grip of codes to the point where filling vacancies are impossible because they cost to much to bring up to code. Cities need to adopt what he calls Pink Codes—less red tape for squatting or doing minimal fix ups to create “flex buildings” out all of the good old buildings.

“It’s all about being lean again. The last century finally stopped around 2006. This obsession with green and high tech will fail. We made codes glamorous. But we forgot to say the original codes were simple, were lean. They got fatter. Nobody can afford to (redevelop spaces) anymore. You can’t get a permit. The Public Private partnership is a patch. We need to go back to the simplicity.”

CNU doesn’t set standards like LEED. Its purpose is to be, in Duany’s words, a “Protean organization” meaning to raise up good ideas and set the stage for individuals to design incredibly attractive places to live.

The problem with new urbanism is its lack of market penetration in weak market cities like Cleveland. And, Duany acknowledges this by saying its tenets -- to build a 4-8 story town center with shops down and living above first and foremost, wasn’t the order developers pursued, particularly after the housing bubble. “The problem is we pitched the town center for the climax condition. We were bitten by the bug of financial protocol. If we’re going to build a four-story town center it’s a $15 M loan. Your kids will grow up before get town center.”

Duany insists New Urbanism only works with the town center first and neighborhood second. But his taking up the cause of code simplification suggests that CNU may be rebooting in the Recession with redevelopment as the driving force (next year’s CNU will be in Buffalo, the first time a weak market city is the host). In fact, there’s very little discussion about “does New Urbanism serve as a catalyst for redevelopment?” at this year’s CNU. The closest it gets is the invitation to the young upstarts -- the leaders of the Tactical Urbanism and Better Blocks initiatives. (More on there presence here and how they are pushing cities to themselves become agents of tactical urbanism, such as pop ups, in the next post).

Speaking for weak market cities reinventing themselves, CNU president and former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist says that the road building industry, not mayors and traffic engineers, are to blame for the lack of transformation in cities. He insists City Hall wants new ideas, but admits they are obligated to lead in rejecting the veiled threats that transportation agencies use.

When Norquist was mayor, he made national headlines removing the Park East Freeway which cut the city off from the lakefront. When I ask him what threats, what Sword of Damocles did the Department of Transportation hold over them, he responded:

“They threatened to cut off the funding for the road. We called their bluff. We said, we’ll repave it and we’ll add sidewalks to bridges. We showed how it would be cheaper to do it our way. There a lots of portals in to the minds of mayors. But mayors need tax base, and a road not a highway provides that.”

What makes it cheaper, he says, is that cities don’t factor in the loss of tax base from removing buildings for highways or, the inverse, bringing cars off the highway on to city streets. The lesson from Norquist’s story of Milwaukee’s shoreway removal for Cleveland is the street network can and does absorb the traffic. Arterials like Detroit and Lorain are like “wetlands that soak up the storm.”

When I tell him Ohio Department of Transportation threatened a failed Level of Service, or throughput of cars, for not boulevarding the West Shoreway in Cleveland, he said:

“Level of service is completely inappropriate for a city. They’ll use some other street. Milwaukee is proof of that. Detroit is the perfect evidence that you can spend billions to try to beat congestion, and you can’t. The city is bankrupt. And the state of Michigan still wants to spend $1.3 billion to widen I-95 in the city. ”

The system to take on is the road builders, Norquist insists. They have huge machines that they’ve leveraged a ton of debt to own and which are only able to add pavement. “They don’t know how to do anything else. It’s why bridge work and fixing what we have is deferred. Their metric is, ‘oh, you drove across the state’ while the guy in the office building in the city who walked two flights of stairs is adding more economic value.”

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