Tag Archives: sprawl

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.]

Mind the Gap (1)

How many crumbling historic (and gorgeous) buildings do we have to tear down, how many dilapidated Arts and Crafts style bungalows or shotgun houses have to be razed, or how many weedy lots do we have to witness before we do something? We have got to stop wasting the opportunities we have right in front of us before we sprawl our city all the way to Clanton

Why do we have so many gaps in our urban fabric…parking lots where buildings used to be, empty lots in our historic residential neighborhoods, historic houses abandoned or burned down?

There are many reasons, but the result is all about density — or lack of it. If you’re concerned about transit, or grocery stores, or dog parks, or walkable blocks, start thinking about density. Density provides the riders for bus routes or rail, the shoppers for the store, the canines for the park, or the consumers for restaurants, late-night coffee shops, and skate shops–which of course means pedestrian traffic and active storefronts which make a block walkable.

In a city like Birmingham, which used to be denser and more populated, we had, according to the 2000 US Census, 242, 820 residents and a density of 1619 people/square mile. Compare this to the 1950 census, when we had 326,037 residents and a density of 4,993 people/square mile. And our population is estimated to be a good deal less in 2010–closing in on 200,000 residents. [We are talking city limits of Birmingham here, not the metro area, which of course is considerably larger, much more populous, and also even less dense than the city proper].

Then take an older city like Providence, RI: in 1950 it had 248,674 residents and a density of more than twice Birmingham’s at 13,892 persons/square mile. By 2000 it’s population was down to 173,618 but it’s density was still considerable at almost six times Birmingham’s: 9,401/square mile.

Unlike some other cities which have deliberate density initiatives, we have been watching passively as people leave the city without enough new residents to replace them; new land is not annexed for dense development but for sprawling shopping centers; and of course gentrification occurs in certain older, desirable neighborhoods (such as Highland Park and Forest Park), where formerly subdivided residences are renovated back to single-family houses, new zoning laws prevent apartment buildings from easily being constructed, etc.

Abandonment in Detroit courtesy of desertchick.

The extreme end of this spiral is a situation like Detroit, where the mayor in late 2009 gave a startling admonition to his city: instead of pretending to still be the city of 2 million as designed, it should instead “focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be.” (New York Times, Sept. 25, 2009).  His practical argument: the city is wasting tax dollars, man power, and energy by cleaning, policing, fire-preventing, and generally maintaining city streets where a large number of houses are mainly abandoned. People have a hard time imagining being forced from their own neighborhoods to live in denser cores, with the old, underused neighborhoods being turned into green space–but this, in effect, is what the mayor suggested.

OK. We aren’t quite there yet, but unless we institute policies to combat the trend, we may get there. Already we have a strained police force and fire force whose jobs are much more difficult due to the spotty inhabitation of certain neighborhoods. It’s all inefficient in so many ways.
Lacking any density initiatives locally (see Vancouver’s density charter as an example), developers have been creating their own density mainly as a perception of market demand. A few years ago we designed the Southside Townhouses as an urban infill project right off Highland Avenue.
Southside Townhouses–possibly the only 5-story rowhouses in Ala.!

They are in an eclectic neighborhood at an intersection surrounded by buildings of many styles and types–historic old apartment buildings, a large mid-rise modern apartment block, and some new and old houses. There are many neighborhood activists who objected to the multi-family project, as well as the appearance, so I would describe the project as locally controversial, but in the end I stand by its scale, its materials, the way it addresses a very multi-layered intersection, and of course its replacement of a vacant lot with some density.
Another controversial project was later constructed just up the street, when the former Otto Marx mansion was torn down to make way for 2600 Highland, a condo tower. While bringing new residential density to its site, the loss of the historic house was painful to many. Thanks to dystopos for the shots below of the old mansion about to disappear, and a rather poignant shot of an older woman scrutinizing the marketing billboard for the new tower:
An example of new density that has thus far avoided the controversy of our own project and 2600 Highland is the CityVille Project put together byCorporate Realty: A half-block replacement of 1- and 2- story commercial and parking lots with a mid-rise, mixed-use development with apartments above and shops and restaurants below, with a parking deck buried in mid-project. Here’s a recent pic from the Cityville website showing the current state of construction:
We have big problems in this city with sprawl, and all the negative social, economic, and aesthetic issues that come with it. Re-densifying neighborhoods is one way to start solving these issues. And the denser a neighborhood, the more activity and amenities it supports, which in turn draws more people to enjoy these things, and we reverse the cycle that we’ve been in for decades here. And it can start with building a small, affordable, cool house on an empty lot in Norwood or College Hills. Or, bringing more housing to suburban centers such as downtown Homewood or Mountain Brook Village.
Coming soon…more infill inspirations from around town and around the country.