New world, old challenges
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE     DEC. 1, 2001
It seems like the whole world has changed since September 11. The US is engaged in a war. The economy appears to be in recession. For new urbanists, not only does life go on, but the issues addressed by this trend — e.g. the social, environmental, and fiscal sustainability of our communities — take on added urgency. First, the not-so-simple task of rebuilding a portion of downtown Manhattan — addressed so eloquently by Jonathan Rose on page 18 — would benefit greatly by a new urban approach. The World Trade Center redevelopment is an opportunity to set the tone for a new century of urban renaissance in terms of architecture, urban design, and economic revitalization. On a more general level, as is pointed out with regard to Rose’s Highlands Garden Village community (see page 11), the mix of uses and housing types inherent in the New Urbanism should help developers to weather the storm of an economic downturn. New urban projects are far more diverse than conventional suburban development, and diversity means economic resiliency. Fiscal sustainability on a macro level is addressed by research conducted for the Sarasota 2050 Plan (see page 1). Analysts there conclude that a smart growth approach will both increase developers’ profits and county revenues. Toward energy independence Perhaps more importantly, the events of September 11 demonstrate the need for greater energy independence. Much of the US’s difficulties with regard to the Arab world are tangled up in our ongoing need for oil in that region. Therein also lies our vulnerability. Americans can’t even buy a loaf of bread, for goodness’ sake, without using foreign sourced oil. We need to protect ourselves against hostile acts of war, certainly, but also address our fossil fuel habit at home. One way to do that and simultaneously improve our quality of life and strength of community is to follow new urbanist land-use principles. The details are critically important to that task, as demonstrated by Disney’s Celebration (see page 1). Such decisions as the location of the town center can determine whether shops will thrive or die in a new urban community. The granny flat rules Planners and developers can learn one immediate lesson: create “granny flats!” These accessory units, brought back and refined by new urbanists, add affordable housing, reduce mortgage payments for homeowners, add density without visual impact, secure alleys, increase diversity, and sell very well. Municipalities should immediately change zoning codes to promote their construction, and developers should look hard before passing them up in their projects. Speaking of success on many levels, read about Highlands Garden Village. Some critics, basing their arguments on two or three well known projects, contend that the new urbanists haven’t provided enough affordable housing, built in infill locations, or connected to mass transit. Projects like Highlands Garden Village defy every stereotype applied to the New Urbanism. New urbanists, like everyone else, have felt the impact of September 11. One example is the early October meeting of the Charter Council — a group that critiques new urban work internally — which only attracted half the turnout of the preceding gathering six months earlier. One reason is that people were still not flying. The issues discussed by the Council, however, have not changed and are more important than ever.