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Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk Admits New Urbanism Needs to Focus More on Transportation
Seaside Florida: setting of the Truman Show and what the New Urbanism used to build. Flickr photo by Melanie M!

Seaside Florida: setting of the Truman Show and what the New Urbanism used to build. Flickr photo by Melanie M!

Another day, another set of notes from an interesting speech: this time Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the founders of the New Urbanism, speaking on Retrofitting the Suburbs at the National Building Museum

It was quite a good talk and I think shows that the New Urbanists are, at least rhetorically, moving more towards a real urbanism and away from just greenfield development along the lines of Seaside or—gasp—Celebration. They should be commended for that. Moreover, Plater-Zyberk was quite insistent over the course of the lecture that retrofitting single-family subdivisions is going to be too difficult to get large-scale results quickly. Between a new emphasis on retrofitting and a turn away from focusing on single-family residential, this wasn’t a speech that could be critiqued as just a New Suburbanism.

There was also a new emphasis on policy which I generally don’t associate with New Urbanism. Plater-Zyberk is an architect and knows it, but her speech was trying to move away from pure design questions to begin asking what the government can do to facilitate those designers. It’s a step very much in the right direction.

Finally, the most important moment of the talk to me was Plater-Zyberk’s response to a question about transportation. She was asked how far DPZ had gone in pairing the different place types that she had identified with specific modes of transportation. Her answer, after a pregnant pause, was “Not far enough.” That’s quite important coming from someone whose most famous project was in approximately the middle of nowhere.

With regards to the retrofitting and the policy emphasis, Plater-Zyberk had numerous examples of DPZ projects that showed those traits. I’m very much looking forward to DPZ and the New Urbanists more broadly really embracing that shift away from greenfields and thinking that is limited by the boundaries of the site and even more excited about the New Urbanists starting to think about transportation.

Notes below the fold.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk – Retrofitting the Suburbs: A New Urbanist Perspective.

Smart Growth Speaker Series, Sponsored by Smart Growth Network, US EPA.

Problems: growth, energy, climate change. Most of the energy has been on technological solutions, not conservation. “Changing technology appears easier than changing behavior, or changing land use.”

Central question: what is private sector doing and how can federal policy induce private investment?

Notes that getting any new building is a challenge.

Federal policy right now: Urban summit was very good (esp. getting rid of rich suburb/poor city division). Stimulus was an opportunity, but need for shovel-readiness and need to route through state gov’ts limited that. Transportation bill is the next opportunity. On transpo bill, CNU wants metric to be “focus on networks” and “adding value.” Gives example of need for more connectivity in suburbs rather than just insular pods between the old rural road network.

New book: Sprawl Repair: Advanced Techniques for a Transitional Urbanism, by EPZ and Galina Tachieva.

History: First generation suburbs along train lines, second gen fills in gaps (post-war), third generation is what we’d call sprawl.

What are sprawl repair targets? Intersections of rural roads, or highways.

Repair at the Regional Scale

Step 1, choose domain. Step 2, preservation areas. Step 3 identify commercial nodes. 4: Identify potential transit routes 5: Identify sprawl repair sites. 6: Transfer development rights. – First used this technique in Hillsborough County in SW Florida.

A lot of this is really an attempt to analyze at a small enough level to figure out exactly what exists currently. They have a way to format all of this into a map of hexagonal bar codes, which is pretty cool. EPZ arguing that the ability to abstract to level of data is important if they want to scale up towards national policy.

Believes there is a shift towards recognizing value of agricultural land near or in cities. But still it’s often less valuable than selling as housing.  Strategies for ag retentions: Clustering reduces infrastructure needs and thereby preserves farmland; Conservation easements and transfers of development rights; “Agricultural urbanism:” scale from foraging to farms to gardens to window boxes.

Community Scale

Conversion chart of sprawl type to community type. Lots of sprawl types (single family subdivision, multi family subdivision, shopping centers, business park, etc. etc.) but only three community types (clustered development (rural), TRD, regional center)). So much of this (particularly charts) is about simplifying and categorizing.

Rural subdivision should become clustered. Single-family subdivisions least likely to change. Multi-family subdivisions – get rid of cul-de-sacs and cluster where the doors are. Shopping centers it’s about moving parking and adding sidewalks.

Downtown Doral: Western Miami-Dade, government offices next to golf courses. Putting in a downtown. All frontage must be townhouse, live/work, or retail.

Mashpee Commons: Shopping center (single-owner) on Cape Cod that in 1988 put in a street grid and connected it to surrounding places. Those connections made it not just a walkable pod but something that became integrated into a broader neighborhood as more development happened.

Cottonwood, Holladay, UT: Recently incorporated area SW of Salt Lake City. Single-owner turned mall into street grid. Included different densities of housing, too (mostly townhouses and five-story). As architect, wants to note that the 5-story building hiding a parking lot is very hard to design well.

Downtown Kendall, Dade County. State regulations helped make this redesign possible. Had multiple property owners, which is big challenge. State forced county’s comprehensive plan and had power to enforce. Could use state implementation as a threat to make things happen better. This was also initiated by the Chamber of Commerce, which increased trust among owners. Charettes chose to model after Savannah. That example helped persuade that density was nicer for walking but also kept green space. These are all building “downtowns.”

Building and Block Level

Has plans for how to bring ranch house to the street (includes closing garage over driveway, I think). Also how to make McMansion an apartment building, what to do with big boxes.

Thoroughfare Network Levl

Multiple mobility – no ability to walk or bike.

Regulatory Tecniques

SmartCode – takes you from regional plan to block and street level under framework of different densities belong in certain places.

What does transect mean? She’s used it 100 times.

Euclidean code into form-based code for Miami. Linear-orientation vs. node orientation. Also includes illustrations on what the transition from now o then looks like.

A lot of interest in building parking garages. Admits its counterintuitive, but need it to successfully transition from surface parking.

3 steps to change: social marketing (make it appealing and educate), facilitation (remove impediments that are doing harm), regulation (directly addressing goals).

Sees fed. Gov’t as more promising for funding than for legislation, but admits that’s because of areas of expertise.

Presentation will be online.

Question and answer

Q: What’s the problem with 5-story buildings? Rome and Paris are 5-story? A: The problem is that if you’re hiding the parking garage, it starts to take up the entire block very quickly.

Q: Leesburg project. Has form-based zoning code for 200 acres of true retrofit of shopping centers. At implementation and having trouble.. A: Infrastructure costs the big problem. When public sector makes first step and puts in infrastructure, there’s no problem at all.

Q: Why suburban repair and not urban repair? A: “we’re not leaving behind the urban areas.” Urban areas have the infrastructure to do infill. “But when you start talking about the whole big picture of the metropolis,” there are more people and much higher energy use in the suburbs.

Q: How far are you going in linking transportation types with place types? A: “Not far enough.” They’re working on a transportation module for SmartCode. Transportation is more fixed than land use is, though.

Q: In Florida in particular, property rates really shape the debate. How do you overcome the issue of property rights? A: Burt Harris provides the legal underpinnings for that idea that you have to compensate for any rights you take away. But EPZ believes that no one has successfully won a lawsuit under that act. But these kinds of issues are one reason that limiting single-family is hard – more owners but also some need for downzoning. If you do commercial nodes, you’re upzoning and without a doubt increasing property values. Also, possibility of “hometown democracy” on ballot, where all developments need to be put to a democratic vote.

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  • Thanks for the excellent summary. A short explanation of the rural-to-urban Transect is available here. Also, many of the suburban retrofit images that Ms. Plater-Zyberk showed in her presentation are in this terrific poster sheet and also in this sprawl repair module for the SmartCode. The other SmartCode modules are worth a look too, like Light Imprint Stormwater and Sustainable Urbanism. The transit oriented development module by Hank Dittmar (which Ms. Plater-Zyberk alluded to) is now under review.

    In regards to policy, new urbanists have been involved at least since the mid-Eighties, up to the current T4America effort which has many new urbanists involved. I’m not sure anyone has written a complete history of new urban policy initiatives, but you can get an idea from the Timeline of New Urbanism (filter for Governmental items).

    And while it’s true that Seaside is DPZ’s most famous project, it’s also true that Seaside was planned in 1980, almost 30 years ago. I believe when Ms. Plater-Zyberk’s body of work is summed up, her most significant project will prove to be Miami 21, the new transect-based zoning code for Miami.