Sustaining the New Urbanism

New urbanists ponder how they can adapt to the new economic climate and avoid the fate of their predecessors.

As the economy and the development industry endure the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, new urbanists are worried about suffering the same fate as their heroes. The likes of John Nolen, Raymond Unwin, and the Olmsted brothers were at the top of the planning profession from 1900 through 1930. Then came the Depression. “After the fiasco of the crash, they never worked again,” said author James Howard Kunstler when he visited Seaside, Florida, to accept the Seaside Prize. “Andres [Duany] has always been keenly aware of this dynamic. It has haunted me, too.”

The 1920s were a time of bubbles bursting, starting in 1926 with Florida real estate, which wiped out George Merrick, the developer of Coral Gables, said Seaside developer Robert Davis, at an event put on by the Seaside Institute. He noted the similarity to recent years. “Our bubble [on the Florida panhandle] was burst a couple of years before the national bubble, after the hurricane [Katrina],” he said.

But there are significant differences in what new urbanists face today and what buried the early 20th Century planners and developers. That earlier movement was swept away in the tide of modernism — which the public and the elite perceived as the only route to progress. Now, New Urbanism is seen as progressive across the political spectrum and stands to benefit from the need to deal with global warming and oil supply problems. “New Urbanism is the top of the list of intelligent responses to this situation,” said Kunstler. “Especially since it has been completely tested.”

“There’s an important link between New Urbanism and the bigger issues that face us as a society,” according to Steve Nygren, developer of Serenbe in Georgia.

Market analyst Todd Zimmerman noted that two generations will clamor for more urbanism in the next decade. Baby Boomers will mostly be empty nesters — and many will downsize from their large-lot housing. Millennials, born from 1977 through 1996, will move into the housing market; they are not highly interested in suburbia. “The confluence of Baby Boomers and Millennials is just beginning,” he said. “So the market will be there as we move out of this crisis.

New kind of urbanism predicted
Yet many of the experts predicted a different kind of New Urbanism will emerge when the economy turns — one that is more focused on infill. Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh is shifting back toward urban redevelopment, where the firm began its efforts in the 1970s, said architect Ray Gindroz. “With the crisis, that’s where a lot of new urbanists are going. To us, it’s like going home,” he said.

New urbanists are poised to lead the effort toward making the suburbs more sustainable, said Duany. “We always did infill, but we were the only ones that engaged [reform of] greenfield development,” he said. “We know how that beast works. We know how it is funded, built, and we are in a position to retrofit it. The ‘plastics’ of the future is ‘retrofit,’ ”said Duany, referring to the famous scene from the movie The Graduate.

Kunstler argued that the typical new urban project scale will no longer be 100 to 200 acres. Smaller increments of construction will prevail because capital will not be as readily available, he said. Davis invoked J.C. Nichols, the famous developer of Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, as a model. “They had long-term equity and minimized debt,” he said. “That’s how they built long-term value through the depression. One of the things that we ought to see is back to basics in terms of finance — a view of real estate as a safe, long-term investment with low returns.”

Architects note that new urbanists are not just producers of plans — but also of ideas. “We have been stopped dead in our tracks, just like everybody else, in our building but not our thinking,” said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The crisis will result in more developers who are open to new urbanist ideas, Duany said. “The reaction was always ‘don’t give me brain damage.’ They didn’t want to change as long as everything was selling anyway. The great difference is that developers are looking for ideas. They tend to be remarkable people that were dumbed down by their success.”

As the US seeks more sustainable land use patterns, it will need the models that the New Urbanism has created, said Kunstler. “This is the group that has toiled over those plans and templates without irony or ulterior motives for the last two decades,” he said.