‘Taking back’ what belongs to many
A curious thing happened to the planning profession on its long road to recovery. The American Planning Association came closer than ever to endorsing New Urbanism’s principles, but displayed a surprising lack of respect for many of the people who put those principles into practice.
In a speech March 20 in San Francisco, welcoming 6,000 planners and students to APA’s annual conference, President Mary Kay Peck declared that the US is on the verge of “a golden age of planning.” “People are building what we espouse,” Peck said. “There are traditional neighborhood developments being built in 43 of the 50 states.” Americans, she pointed out, increasingly want “places where they can walk” and are eager to stop being overly dependent on automobiles. “Transit is breaking records in cities all over the country,” Peck said, adding, “People are starting to use our language” — a language that emphasizes values such as “authenticity” and “sense of place.”
From beginning to end, the four-and-a-half-day conference put new urbanist concepts and methods in the spotlight. There was an entire track of sessions called “New Urbanism Comes of Age,” plus tours of developments like Santana Row in San Jose and the waterfront district in Hercules, California. The fastest-growing subgroup in APA is the New Urbanism Division, 450 members strong after only about three years of operation. As if to signal where the profession is heading, APA devoted its final session to a panel discussion in which several of New Urbanism’s founders — including Judith Corbett, Peter Calthorpe, and Daniel Solomon — summed up New Urbanism’s accomplishments and pondered the challenges ahead.
A DECADE AND A HALF OF LEARNING
My sense is that during the past 15 years, many planners have absorbed the new urbanist emphasis on the need for physical design and making great places — settings where shops, services, housing, employment, and public spaces are nearer one another. A significant number of planners have started to see themselves once more as advocates for good principles of community design, drawing on New Urbanism, regionalism, and environmental conservation. This is a welcome change. The problem now is that the APA seems to have become jealous of competitors possibly intruding on its turf. “Others are trying to claim our message,” Peck said. Groups such as builders and real estate interests, she complained, are saying they are responsible for attributes such as “sense of place.” With those observations as background, Peck delivered APA’s truculent new slogan: “We are going to take it back.”
I’m glad to see the profession expressing renewed interest in how to shape walkable, transit-connected, mixed-use communities. But APA is making a mistake in claiming most of the credit for what has so far been achieved. In point of fact, architects such as Calthorpe, Solomon, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth Moule, and Stefanos Polyzoides, more than planners, played the leading roles in getting New Urbanism started. As for educating the public, no one did more to popularize the phrase and concept “sense of place” than New York architect Robert A.M. Stern in his eight-part Public Broadcasting series “Pride of Place,” way back in 1986. A few developers, notably Robert Davis, Joseph Alfandre, and Henry Turley, appeared in the forefront, shouldering the financial risk of introducing the first traditional neighborhood development. Some planners also quickly joined the movement, but the profession as a whole went on permitting single-purpose tract housing developments, shopping centers with awful pedestrian access, and isolated business “parks.” Too much of the profession continues to do that.
The best thing for the “Take it Back” campaign would be a quick burial. Planners and new urbanists need the cooperation of all sorts of people so that the remaining obstacles can be overcome — in real estate finance, fire department demands, retailing conventions, zoning codes, and other domains. The movement will lose ground if the discussion becomes fixated on questions of who is responsible for what’s been accomplished. Only by working together and downplaying questions of credit will we improve our communities. New Urban News April/May