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NEW URBANISM

GREEN

Green - New Urbanism

Habersham
Leave that car at home. New Urbanism promotes compact communities that foster neighborliness. Walk or bike to the town center, where you’ll probably find a post office, too. Above, Habersham, near Beaufort, S.C.
Photo Credit: Habersham | www.habershamsc.com


Talk about throwing it all away. That’s what Tom Low did after designing what many architects might call the job of a lifetime. He’d just finished the master plan for a huge shopping complex, now the largest tourist destination in North Carolina.

“It was ‘here’s the zoning booklet, create a great suburban sprawl,’ ” he recalls. But he didn’t like what he’d planned. He didn’t like it at all.

“I said, there’s got to be a better way, and that’s when I discovered the work of Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.”

DPZ was promoting a concept that became known as New Urbanism, and it was the opposite of what Mr. Low had just planned for his big project. New Urbanism was about walkable neighborhoods, common greenspace for residents to meet, some retail stores for groceries, a newspaper, an ice-cream cone.

It was not about suburbia, with its busy spine road from which artery streets branched, where neighborhoods were segregated by size and cost.

New Urbanism actually harkened back to what was old, those pre-World War II communities where people knew each other, talked to each other, and maybe most importantly, didn’t have to spend so much time in a car.

The average American household generates 13.7 car trips a day,” Mr. Low affirms. “Just to get a quart of milk, take your kids to school, go shopping. You spend all your time consumed with commuting.”

Tom Low chucked his “cushy” job and left Charlotte for Miami, where he enrolled in graduate school to study town design. Today, he’s Director of Town Planning for Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the visionaries who built Seaside, the iconic Florida community that galvanized planners to rethink gated communities with cul-de-sacs located far outside town. Then called “Traditional Neighborhood Design,” the concept for Seaside was the antithesis of “Conventional Suburban Design.” Now called “New Urbanism,” these traditional neighborhoods are all about mixing it up. Houses are all sizes and people are all ages. Skittering off to a suburban patio home after the kids leave and you want to downsize is not a New Urban philosophy. In a New Urban community, you can “retire in place,” Mr. Low says, because there are smaller homes available if you want one.


A true New Urban community is marked by some retail and gathering places, as well as interconnected streets and a blending of different kinds of homes into a cohesive whole.


“People accuse us of being social engineers, but we just figured out how to stop cars from taking over the lifestyle,” he maintains. Living in a traditional neighborhood, as opposed to a suburban subdivision, saves between one-third and two-thirds of your car travel time. “That alone probably saves you three or four weeks a year.”

Tom Low is back in Charlotte, where the John Nolen-designed Myers Park neighborhood reinforces his belief that New Urbanism makes sense. Myers Park was begun in 1911, and has become an inspiration for other New Urban communities in the area. In fact, the Charlotte region has more New Urban neighborhoods than anywhere else in the country, he reports, and there are several in the Carolinas.


The average American household generates 13.7 car trips a day,” Mr. Low affirms. “Just to get a quart of milk, take your kids to school, go shopping. You spend all your time consumed with commuting.”


To him, there’s something much more civil about life in a New Urban community. Because streets are narrow with cars parked alongside them, drivers instinctively know to slow down and watch for children and bikes. Shade trees invite outdoor socializing. “They say it’s a nice place to hang out.”

Hanging out, though, isn’t as likely to happen in some suburban neighborhoods. “You want to get as fast as you can from the gated entrance to the garage door of your house,” Mr. Low says. “Streets are wide, cars are speeding at a hostile rate, houses are cookie-cutter, and there’s nothing to see on the way. You want to get to the wonderful interior of your McMansion.”


Because streets are narrow with cars parked alongside them, drivers instinctively know to slow down and watch for children and bikes. Shade trees invite outdoor socializing.


Huge houses don’t belong in a New Urban environment, which upholds the idea that people want to be with people, outside their homes. “There are plenty of McMansions to go around, but there’s an incredible pent-up demand from people who want something different in their community,” Mr. Low upholds. “People are sick and tired of being isolated and lonely.”

Actually, he predicts the mega-homes are on their way out. Today’s baby boomer, having grown up in “a large house on a large lot,” isn’t attracted to what drew their parents. As for the “Creative Class” – professionals from 25 to 44 – an enclave of large, similarly designed homes outside town is simply a turn-off. Mr. Low quotes a Gallup poll that reported 27 percent of the population prefer suburbia while 34 percent prefer walkable neighborhoods and towns. “Growing numbers are investing in condo flats in the big city,” he says, “and growing numbers of community planners are quickly retooling themselves.”


“They offer in a seamless, unstructured way, a chance to have a chance encounter, and for relationships to be formed and for kids to feel safe playing together.”


For Terry Shook, New Urban communities are important because they give people a choice in how to live. “We’d gotten to the point that if you were in the market for a house, with the way zoning and planning and lending have evolved over the past 50 years, you had to go to a place where there was one price point and size. But that’s not the only way to live.” Mr. Shook is president of Shook-Kelley, a firm of brand strategists, urban and interior designers, architects and “cool hunters.” The company has offices in Charlotte and Los Angeles, and also looks to the work of DPZ as a model.

Terry Shook and Tom Low both warn that there are communities that claim to be New Urban but aren’t. Front porches and shallow front yards are not enough to qualify, they say. A true New Urban community is marked by some retail and gathering places, as well as interconnected streets and a blending of different kinds of homes into a cohesive whole. “That’s the way real cities are done, and it’s more difficult to achieve,” Mr. Shook says.


Actually, he predicts the mega-homes are on their way out. Today’s baby boomer, having grown up in “a large house on a large lot,” isn’t attracted to what drew their parents.


“Pragmatic” is how Mr. Shook describes the communities and the homes within them. New Urbanism recognizes that there are all kinds of families – couples, singles, seniors, renters, large families, families taking care of elderly parents. And homes are built for those different places in life. The architects also recognize how people live today, and design homes accordingly. “It might not have the 30-foot soaring foyer and you won’t have 50 gables on the front of the house, but they’re very much sophisticated in terms of contemporary living. It always shocks me when I go in these McMansions with these great entrance halls that have no practical purpose,” he said.

New Urban communities make it easier to be neighborly, and in a natural fashion. “They offer in a seamless, unstructured way, a chance to have a chance encounter, and for relationships to be formed and for kids to feel safe playing together,” Mr. Shook believes. What if you don’t like your neighbor? Terry Shook chuckles. “Well, you learn life lessons, don’t you?”