New Urbanism (1)

Yesterday I traveled out to Trussville Springs for the first time. This is a planned, mixed-use development about 15 miles northeast of downtown Birmingham, and was designed by the internationally recognized planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). DPZ–which has also designed the Mt. Laurel and Blount Springs developments in the metro area–is known as the preeminent proponent of New Urbanism worldwide. New Urbanism draws on time-tested urban principles, and argues that communities should be compact, mixed-use, and friendly to alternative transport. It is an antidote to sprawl.

A vision for Trussville

Trussville Springs’ master plan is certainly typical of DPZ work: lots of preserved open space and public amenities instead of private lawns; garages fronting alleys, rather than driveways on the main streets; a commercial center designed within walking distance of all residents; and a distinctly old-fashioned marketing package that draws heavily on nostalgia for an earlier time. The Cahaba river runs through here, and is beautifully framed by old trees and rolling hills. Yes, the developer skillfully inserted some stones into the river to create both a “rushing river” sound, and to allow a path across. But still, it is a stunning natural feature.

A truly public amenity

However, something strikes me about this–and many other new towns designed by DPZ and their many imitators. While certainly preferable in many ways to typical, sprawl development, whose gated communities and feeder roads encourage car use, social isolation, and single-use development, I can’t get over the feeling that Trussville Springs isn’t dense enough to qualify as a real antithesis to sprawl. It’s hard to say due to the current economy (only a few houses have actually been built), but with all the empty housing stock in the metro area, much of which is already in compact, urban neighborhoods, and without larger influxes of new people moving into the metro, the overall need for a place like Trussville Springs seems questionable.

In fact, right across Main Street is downtown Trussville: a fairly compact, urban, walkable neighborhood, with big trees, narrow streets, and sidewalks filled on Saturday with families strolling to the school for a festival, to the library or just chatting with neighbors on front porches. As an authentic, organic neighborhood, that actually seems to thrive with a lot of the New Urbanist principles, it made me wish all that energy spent across the street in Trussville Springs was instead being spent elsewhere. It was sort of like an “Old” Urbanist neighborhood already existed across the road.

Compact, walkable, and populated: downtown Trussville

If you talk to Andres Duany, he will tell you that the final rendition of the developments he planned is often disappointing. The original intent for affordable housing? Gone, due to market forces. Transit connections? The municipality isn’t interested. That quaint commercial center filled with corner grocers, ice-cream shops, and quirky live-work spaces for artisans? The developer just didn’t see the demand, and filled the space with more houses instead. So residents end up having to get in their cars, head onto the highway, and go the the strip malls like everyone else. Instead of truly transforming how people live and interact, these places become just prettier, slightly denser versions of homogeneous suburban developments.

Here’s an idea: let’s hire DPZ (or some like-minded company) to design a master plan for an existing urban neighborhood in need of revitalizing and repopulating. We’re not creating new roads, or extending the power grid, or tearing up more virgin land on the outskirt of the urban core. It could be Woodlawn. Or Rosedale-downtown Homewood. Or the Railroad Park neighborhood. Places that could benefit from more density, more alternative modes of transportation, more shops and services. DPZ did a master plan for an area of downtown Providence, RI that examined many smaller sites, suggesting new densities, retail opportunities, transit improvements, etc. To me, this type of planning is what is going to save Birmingham from soulless sprawl and urban neglect, not far-flung suburban communities like Trussville Springs, as well-intended as they may be.

Providence had the vision

Of course, Providence didn’t just hire DPZ to make pretty renderings like the above. They have been methodically implementing the plan over the last decade. Birmingham has a terrible history, as I’ve noted before, of commissioning plans which, due to lack of community buy-in and leadership, sit gathering dust on the shelf. Wouldn’t it be great if we had excellent urban plans, prepared by experts with lots of community participation, and the will/mechanisms to actually implement? I see a city where New Urbansim and plain-old Urbanism could weave together in a brilliant web of vitality. There’s a lot more to say about this topic, coming soon.

This neighborhood deserves a plan as good as the park itself

[Thanks to DPZ for the master plan of Trussville Springs, and the Providence rendering; and to Tom Leader Studio for the aerial of Railroad Park.]

18 responses to “New Urbanism (1)

  1. Jeremy: I’m afraid you’ve picked up an early and misguided modernist complaint about New Urbanism: That greenfields are still greenfields. Fact is, the movement was the first and still only attempt to reform suburban development patterns. Yes, the principles are based on old patterns — that’s their strength. But for some years well more than half of all NU projects have been infill urban in character. Trussville Springs will help reinforce the core of town and it will give residents some of the options of older in-town neighborhoods. So, let’s not damn this as a viable option to sprawl even as we support application in existing areas. Too bad the City of Birmingham has been so slow to get this. CNU met in Austin a few years back becasue they are totally on board. There will be literally nobody in local government at the upcoming CNU in Atlanta. Asleep at the switch.

  2. My biggest beef with New Urbanism really is the lack of diversity within the final development of rendition of a project. Many other NU developments have fallen the way of Trussville Springs in that they just do not have the diversity of residents, housing options or commercial options for them to be viable communities of there own.

    Consider The Waters in Montgomery which was started several years ago…they developers still have to heavily subsidize the few commercial operations that within their town center to keep them alive and most of their “cheaper” housing options have been empty since constructed. I’m sure much of this has stalled because of the economy, but The Waters was started before the bubble burst. It could be their location though, they do seem a bit disconnected from Montgomery.

    Keep an eye on Hampstead in Montgomery, it should be an interesting case study in the future of NU developments. They put a lot of emphasis in establishing the commercial district early to help lure residences and start to establish their presence in the surrounding neighborhoods. It is also is the first development DPZ has been heavily involved with the design under the SmartCode they helped develop.

  3. As often happens, the original plan by DPZ is more subtle, more connected, and more likely to succeed than the developer’s rejiggered version. Redeveloping the vacant factory site will benefit Trussville, although they’ll have to be careful that retail in the new town center doesn’t cannibalize the existing retail in Trussville. Frankly, any retail in the new town center is going to struggle to survive because the rejiggered plan has messed with the direct connection to Highway 11.

    For a nearby new urbanism plan for redevelopment, take a look at the Montgomery Downtown Plan and SmartCode by Dover Kohl. It was adopted for the entire downtown in 2007.

  4. Philip–your points are strong. I realize this is a multi-faceted topic with many layers, and can’t claim to have been thorough in my brief post. I do feel that–while yes, NU projects are among the best examples of combating suburban sprawl, Birmingham is missing the mark by not employing NU planning within existing blighted or underpopulated neighborhoods. If we had both suburban and urban NU projects going on at once–then we’d all probably be celebrating. I just hate to see the emphasis locally on just one side of the equation.

    Ironic that there’s local press about City Councilors and City Staff attending that retail convention, yet there’s no one going to CNU. Asleep at the switch indeed!

  5. Like Saint Loius, I feel the 20th Century mindset of doing things is too well ingrained here, and too well admired and thought of, to change.

    The population certainly seems disinterested, and the developers evidently too pea-brained to comprehend NU or pre-WWII principles of community development.

    Birmingham started out as a collection of mining operations, and as a hub of some of the heaviest industries known, run by far-off corporations. To Southerners, it was and still is an invasive alien blight upon the land. Coupled with the leadership outright abandoning Jones Valley to the Civil Rights “rebel-rousers”, I really don’t see any of this changing in the next 50 years.

    Birmingham is such a beautiful, unique, intriguing city. Unfortunately, it’s located in a place toxic to urbanity, society and culture.

  6. However, having said that, I think Mayor Bell seems receptive to new ideas, moving forward, and building consensus throughout the region. If ever there was a time to try to implement NU concepts at City Hall, now would be it. Even a minimal success could reap big rewards down the way. If I were mayor, I’d target the Birmingham Southern/Princeton Medical Center corridor, Midtown, Century Plaza and Roebuck as the first comprehensive redevelopments.

  7. Thought: Let’s not spend $70 million dollars developing a Westing and “Marketplace” (entertainment) district in an area that will not lure local residents, is not thought upon as “safe” and will receive only sporadic visitors from the off and on again conventions and meetings. Instead, let’s invest in existing “districts” that have local businesses, authentic charm, enthusiastic residents, and existing infrastructure. For $70 million, we might be able to tackle a few districts at once. A few obvious candidates: Railroad Park area, Woodlawn, Five Points South, Lakeview, even Ensley. Street lights, better safety, transporation options, etc…

    I know I’m not speaking to your article, Bhamarchitect, but I just can’t get my mind off the mayor’s current focus. It just doesn’t make sense…he’s not creating a “destination”. He’s creating a delusion….and I anticipate the city will pay for it, in more ways than one.

  8. Oops ! That previous post did not workout.

    I just wanted to say I enjoy this blog.

    It would be interesting if the City would use a new urbanist plan for an established neighborhood.

    • Karlton, thanks. Yes, I could not agree with you more. Montgomery adopted a plan for their downtown a couple years ago. The link that Laurence posted above is quite interesting.

  9. This link directly addresses New Urbanism in established communities.

  10. I think NU developments like Trussville are going to thrive as long as the Birmingham school systems keep declining. It’s not rocket science to understand the migratory patterns of Birmingham these days….. stay in Birmingham and pay for private school (or home school) or move to a neighboring city. Many young folks with children (myself included) are at this crossroad and Birmingham is not heavily weighted. Metro areas like DC have implemented a charter school system and have a step up in revitalization of decaying urban neighborhoods.

    • Ryan–The comparison with DC is an interesting one. DC, while it has recently seen charter school and other reforms in the school system, still has the same exodus of young families to the suburbs at school age. One difference is the US government and it’d ripple effect ensured a steady influx of others moving into the city. In both cities, approximately 3/4 of all households have no school-age children though. So I feel the school system, while important, is only part of the problem.

  11. I think that your complaints are actually a widespread misconception with New Urbanism. I was talking to a planner in the Birmingham area and he said, “New Urbanism is just for new developments, though!”
    That’s not the case at all. Obviously the best thing a developer can build would be well-designed urban infill, but due to financial factors sometimes these developments happen too.
    NU recognizes such developments as a step in the right direction, but overall it wants to end sprawl, improve public transport, lower energy consumption, build better infrastructure, improve our urban design, and revitalize metropolitan life across North America. I lament the fact that NU is mostly known through these kinds of developments. These are built on “new urbanist principles,” but that’s where the similarities end.

    • Thank you for your comment. You’ve identified the essence of the complaint–that NU tends to always be used in greenfield developments, creating a better quality of life within that development than what may have been created conventionally–but otherwise still producing a greenfield development, which compounds the trend of suburban sprawl for a region. There has not been enough application of NU to infill and existing neighborhoods–for obvious reasons–and it’s frustrating to those of us who take a holistic view toward strategic use of resources and development. There are some great exceptions (including a recent design for downtown Montgomery, not too far from here), and I hope we’ll see more economic/social pressure for applying NU to existing neighborhoods that have thinned out but have so much potential. I am teaching a seminar right now using NU principles as our guide, and am hopeful a next generation of designers will take this sentiment “into the streets” as it were.

  12. I absolutely agree that we should infuse NU planning into existing urban neighborhoods rather than develop NU communities that never meet expectations. Existing walkable neighborhoods like Highland Park that include affordable housing, social diversity and great local shops cannot be recreated by cookie-cutter developers, regardless of green design. The goals of NU to develop work/live neighborhoods attempt to recreate a lifestyle found in restored, former blighted urban areas. These communities, transformed and cleaned up by creative adults and the gay community seeking affordable, architecturally interesting homes, reflect their passion for affordable, safe housing, near local supermarkets, shops, clubs and restaurants that that cater to their budgets and shopping habits.

    Developers, on the other hand, didn’t show up to Highland Avenue, Midtown Atlanta, Boystown (North Halstead) Chicago, or even the San Francisco warehouse district until urban pioneers, small businesses and neighborhood leaders paved their way. We know that developers either capitalize on the existing reputation of a neighborhood, or make over-priced new ones. The average downtown Birmingham loft costs $1200 a month. A six-pack of Corona costs ten bucks at one of the few corner stores. What are we doing?

    Can’t we shift the development paradigm to build and support the businesses we want in our neighborhoods? Why extend development monies and tax breaks to cookie-cutter hotels and over-priced chain bars? When teachers, police officers and small businesses can’t afford to live and operate downtown, why are we spending money building high-ticket hospitality/entertainment ventures?

    We have the creative talent in Birmingham to create a vibrant, live-work community. Can’t we shift the development paradigm to build and support the businesses we want to revitalize our neighborhoods? Can’t we poll, recruit and support small businesses with start-up and operating monies/incentives that benefit the community, and in turn, encourage more professionals to seek affordable, safe housing downtown? Artists, shop owners and small businesses need cheap rent. Single professionals want affordable housing. There are too many vacant properties downtown and in Southside. Perhaps the architectural/design community can get together and re-think our strategies for development.

    • Excellent comments. If only the architecture/design community had the sort of clout/power in this community to affect change as you propose. So many things holding us back are structural: fragmentary government, conservative corporate mindset, slow growth/few newcomers with fresh outlooks, lack of strategic planning history.

      Sometimes it takes local people to band together and create something (i.e. a really cool boutique hotel with lots of local character). Otherwise you’re stuck with chains, often provided by out-of-town developers. Incentives would flow to the local projects too—but we seem to have less collective will to put them together than other cities, with of course some exceptions. Thanks.

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