New Urbanism Faces Challenges in Dallas, Nationwide

“New Urbanism” development–creating mixed-use projects where people can live, work and play–is less about money-making ventures and more about preventing urban sprawl and congested freeways, according to many proponents of the concept. New Urbanism was the subject of a recent presentation by  Andrés Duany, founding principal at Duany Plater Zyberk & Co., at an event hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.“Dallas is a place that gets things done and looks forward to the future. That is one of the sad things about American culture now is that they are terrified of the future,” said Duany, who is a founder and current board member of CNU. “For the first time in American history, growth is a bad name. In every other field growth is good, but when the city grows the citizens become weird.” Duany criticized urban sprawl nationwide. “With the sprawl you see congestion on 12-lane highways. They’re not being used for commerce,” he said. “The private cost of living in suburbia … led to the cheapening of the houses and vinyl siding to offset the tremendous debt to the mandatory need for cars.” The result of this is new urbanism, Duany said. “New urbanism faces some uphill battles because it’s a new frontiers,” he said, citing often well-meaning public input as a major hurdle for developers of new urbanist projects. By opposing McMansions, Duany noted, residents may also prevent charming bungalow courts. Defending a neighborhood from a Wal-Mart may eliminate the possibility of pedestrian friendly community retail. What new urbanism promotes is diversity through mixed-use projects, in particular. There are four things that these urban designs require, Duany said. “You need places within walking distance to shop, live, go to school and work. This allows you to do with one car less and not to force you to drive,” he said. Walkability is also one of a project’s must-haves. It isn’t a climate that prevents people from walking to meet their needs, but a physical design that does not allow it, Duany contended. The third requirement is diversity. For instance, a school located in a community needs the principal, janitor, teacher and secretary to be able to live nearby. “No community functions well unless everyone can live there. Society needs the full diversity of economic ranges,” Duany said. The fourth thing new urbanism requires is a need for “compactness.” Duany said lots don’t have to be bigger to get privacy. While most people hate traffic and want their homes removed from areas with shops and schools, new urbanism is simply returning to the pre-World War days of living. “Most people have been in both kinds of places. While traveling, visitors experience first rate urbanism in New York City, Santa Fe, Annapolis and Boston. And you know suburban sprawl very well,” Duany said. “The only way to get density is if out the front door you have street life. You need to provide first rate street life or you’ll never get it off the ground,” he explained. Part of the problem, as Duany sees it, is that city codes don’t allow neighborhoods with their daily needs within walking distance. He called the city models “broken” with zoning requiring that these different types of structures being relegated to different areas. “We need to bring the corner store back to help the neighborhood, but what we need to do is make sure the typology is similar to the neighborhood with parking in the back. Those kinds of corner stores survive and are beloved. We’re not talking about the 7-Eleven. Physical design has everything to do with this,” he said. “We need form-based codes with specifics such as the form of this corner is A, B and C. This is the setback, height, windows are vertical … make it harmonious. The current codes are not form-based but statistical.” “We’re getting better urbanism, but it is still not good enough and it will be inferior to places that got it right like Seattle and Portland,” he said. “Dallas suffers from being a little too confident that you have it right. You’ve been in such a lucky place, but you need to be much more precise in your expectations.”