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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.]