Rediscovering The Urban Milieu

Recapturing neighborhoods and communities is central to new urbanism.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) recognized William Rawn Associates, Boston, for the redesign of the Boston Public Library main branch. The project took the Grand Prize among 16 winners of the Charter Awards. The renovation included the removal of granite plinths, which blocked the ground floor windows, and replacement of the dark glazing with a visually transparent curtainwall.

Cities evolve and change. They always have. For a time following World War II, many U.S. cities were in serious decline, and residents fled to the suburbs. These days some cities are seeing a revival of varying degrees. Residents, and would-be residents, recognize the advantages of diverse communities with necessities and amenities close at hand, preferably reachable without reliance on an automobile.

New urbanism is a concept that characterizes the changes taking place in cities and, to some extent, even the suburbs, but what is new urbanism, exactly?

“In the United States, new urbanism would be something that looked like a piece of the United States as if it were built before World War II. It’s about the simplest way that I can say it,” said John Torti, FAIA, Torti Gallas + Partners, Silver Spring, MD.

“It’s about how to plan and remake some of our older cities and suburbs and how to make new towns and villages beautiful, more pedestrian friendly, and more walkable,” he continued. “It’s also about restructuring public policy that changes the weight of the automobile in our public environment and produces better places for human beings—better walkable communities whether they’re high-density communities or medium- or low-density communities.”

“New urbanism is a way of making buildings, neighborhoods, towns, regions in ways that favor walkability, transit, and compact, more livable mixed-use communities that are less reliant on the automobile and are organized around a very strong public realm,” added Elizabeth Moule, partner, Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, Pasadena, CA. “They encapsulate important environmental and sustainable considerations in making towns. It’s a way of trying to restore the sense of community that people can share with one another in neighborhoods and towns and restore balance between the natural world and development.”

The transformation of the Boston Public library main branch fills a new public room with light and extends the library into the newly defined shaded public plaza, with tables that encourage passersby to linger. The programming of the redesigned space was carefully considered to address 21st Century library patrons—from toddlers to adults.

Architecture or planning?

New urbanism is about a combination of architecture and city planning. “It’s absolutely both,” Moule agreed. “There really aren’t fantastic cities, towns, and neighborhoods that don’t have beautiful architecture. Architecture contributes to the kind of visceral qualities of a place as much as anything, and the way that buildings are designed contributes positively to walkability or not. For instance, the way that a building faces the street, whether there might be a curb cut or two for an automobile, may disrupt a pedestrian experience on a sidewalk. The façade that a buildings presents towards the city can be interesting or not and induce more walking or discourage more walking. That’s a question of scale; it’s a question of material; it’s a question of how the sidewalk, the entire street frontage, is managed,” she said.

“Remember simultaneous algebra equations where you solve for several things at one time?” Torti asked. “That’s what this is really all about. You’re solving for the form of the city and how it behaves. You’re solving for the quality of the space between the buildings, the public space or public realm, or squares, or piazzas, or parks. You’re solving for a mix of anything you could think of. It’s possible that I could live and possibly even work, play, go to school, or shop in the same neighborhood without getting into my car every time I leave the house. Making those kinds of environments come alive again is important. It’s also not only a mix of physical things, it’s a mix of people,” Torti said.

“One of the things that my firm, Torti Gallas + Partners, prides itself in is creating neighborhoods for mixed-income people, people that live on the same block with one another, in the same neighborhood, that come from different economic backgrounds and are racially diverse as well. This is possible; this is the way the United States grew up once upon a time. It is not the way the suburbs have developed since World War II, which were really more about separation and division rather than connectivity and inclusiveness,” Torti explained.

“Architecture is secondary,” Torti said. “The architecture supports the design of the city. If you travel and you go see the places that attract people, whether it’s to a New England square or a plaza in Rome or a wonderful park in Paris, you understand that you go see the places more than you go see the city, and the city makes those places with the fabric or background buildings more than the hero buildings, if you will. The churches, museums, synagogues, and town halls are the special hero buildings in a city. They make the places of significant points of interest, but the city itself is made up of a fabric of simpler, more plain buildings that are normally the shops, offices, houses, and apartments of the city. The fabric of the city creates and forms a public realm and that public realm is punctuated by the important buildings of the city.”

Torti Gallas + Partners, Silver Spring, MD, was recipient of a CNU Charter Award for Park Van Ness, a six-story, 271-unit apartment building that features ground-floor retail near a transit stop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington.
This Art Deco building is a striking addition to a major urban thoroughfare, terminating in a vista at the end of a cross street with a grand, two-story archway that leads into a 5,000-sq.-ft. public plaza overlooking Rock Creek Park. The building acknowledges the vista with a view of nature framed by architecture that makes the pedestrian experience more interesting by breaking up the large building into two halves. The street-level view of the park’s magnificent tree canopies, highly visible because of a drop-in grade, is a gift to the community.
Options for walking, bicycling, and transit are plentiful—as is on-street parking—and so the Park Van Ness includes fewer than one parking space per unit. A courtyard faces the primary thoroughfare.

Obstacles and challenges

One of the obstacles to new urbanism in its early days 20 to 25 years ago was convincing people that it could be done “because we had spent from 1948 till 1995, 40 to 50 years, making the rules that in essence built the suburbs. We perfected a separate zoning set of categories; we perfected how to get the federal government money to build big roads; we perfected a lifestyle of having to get in the car to deliver Johnny to the soccer game and get in the car again to deliver Mary to school. We had to get in the car yet again to go to work and once more to go shopping. The notion of building more compact communities that looked different than the suburbs was a hurdle,” Torti said.

“We’ve really gotten rid of a lot of obstacles,” Moule commented. “There used to be many, many more. There were obstacles for financing, obstacles or rules about streets, or rules about parking, or single-use zoning that required or disallowed mixing of uses, or public works departments that wanted to emphasize high traffic speeds over slower vehicular speeds that favored greater walkability and, for that matter, bikability.”

Transit, a key element in most new urbanist plans, could be a challenge in the short term, Moule fears. “I think at a federal level we’re going to see less funding for rail projects that help commuters access parts of town that are beyond walking distance and otherwise would require getting into a car. That’s surely going to be a challenge moving forward.”

Even though people may live in more walkable communities, getting them out of their cars continues to be a challenge, Moule continued. Generationally, younger people seem to be less enthused about getting driver’s licenses, but there still may be some resistance about giving up private automobiles among middle-aged populations, she observed.

In addition “there are still, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, zoning codes that are completely obsolete. I mean, just the term zoning code is itself expressive of single-use zoning. That’s what zoning codes meant; everything had to have a zone, a single-use zone. Plenty of codes throughout the entire country and, for that matter, around the world still require single-use zoning,” Moule said.

Among those recognized by CNU was artist Matthew Mazzotta for his Storefront Theater in Lyons, NE, a project that is itself a work of art, and also encourages artistic events.
Working with local craftspeople, Mazzotta created a theater that folds out from a vacant brick façade, using two hydraulic pump arms to raise and lower it for events. The theater can be engaged with the push of a button, providing seating for 100. Typically, a movie screen is pulled into the middle of the street with a tractor to complement the seating—a fitting sight in this prairie settlement, population 851, about 50 miles from Omaha. In the process, Main Street becomes a town square, a focal point for the community once again.
Since the opening, the catalytic theater has hosted movie screenings, video game nights, an anti-bullying event, and music concerts. The new energy brought by the venue has inspired another Lyons native to purchase the empty building next to the theater and turn it into an art gallery that had it first show in 2016.

Critics and objections

Not everyone is eager to move back to the city “because that’s where the poor people live,” Torit observed. But that’s changing, he thinks. “Towns and cities are becoming more economically diverse. One of the difficulties with moving families back to the cities is the quality of the school systems, but those are slowly getting better. Many cities have made great strides in this area; many have not.” Torti said.

Torti strongly favors creating mixed-income neighborhoods. “Because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means that you have less money than I do. Normally if a neighborhood has a range of income groups the way they used to, it makes for a better neighborhood. It certainly makes for a more enjoyable neighborhood,” he said.

Some critics have cited gentrification as a negative impact of new urbanism, but while Moule says it may be a fair criticism, it doesn’t necessarily have to be so.

“There are ways to manage growth and densification in existing places that accommodate people, and there are ways that one can actually increase more affordable housing than currently exists in some places. I think that’s more a way that things are done, rather than something that’s intrinsic to new urbanism,” Moule said.

She believes affordability is an important issue, as is making sure that places that are being made are not only attractive to millennials but attractive to middle class and to the broadest possible section of the population. It’s always been the objective of new urbanism, she stated.

Among the CNU Charter Award honorees was Van Meter Williams Pollack LLP, San Francisco, for their redevelopment of the landmark former St. Joseph’s convent in Oakland, CA, into affordable housing.
The unique character of St. Joseph’s provides a strong sense of place in Fruitvale, Oakland. Five historic buildings, dramatic trees, and the rumble of the nearby trains contribute to a cohesively designed site that includes new construction, landscaping, and restoration. The redevelopment of the 3.3-acre block has vastly improved the safety and attractiveness of the streets it faces, with welcoming new entrances, new uses, and more people offering “eyes on the street” at all hours of the day.
The redevelopment provides 146 affordable homes for senior citizens and families, 3,200 sq. ft. of commercial uses, and two indoor community spaces. Unique touches include the conversion of a brick guardhouse into an art room next to the children’s play area.
The development also adds much-needed density—approximately 40 units per acre—on a transit corridor.

“I think a lot of people also believe that there’s something sort of backward looking about making places walkable,” Moule continued. “But the fact is that if you just look at the history of cities and you look at the places that have been most successful over time, they have always been walkable, and they will be continue to be walkable.”

Indeed, if new urbanism seems to be looking for inspiration from the past, it’s because many aspects of urban living were useful and have been proven to work.

“If you look at a place like the city of Rome, it’s existed for millennia because it is as profoundly useful for residents today as it was when it was first built. It’s a city that has sustained many different kinds of populations and a growth in different ways. I do believe that there are time-honored ways of making places that not only suit our culture today but will continue to suit people well into the future. It is absolutely my goal to make places that I knew are responsive to folks today as well as folks tomorrow,” Moule said.

“I think that those are very consistent themes, they’re diverse, they’re compact, they’re mixed in use, they have plenty of open space, they have easy access to food, water, recreation, schools, a way to have a livelihood, a way for people to have a spiritual life, easy access to the natural world. Those are things that people have always wanted and I think will continue to want. There may be newer building technologies, but I think the basic human settlement pattern has hardly changed for the last several thousand years,” she said.

“I’d like to think of us as, new urbanists, as having an understanding the way older cities looked, were designed, and behaved with their citizenry, and also the ability to combine that with today’s 20th century lifestyles. Putting both of those together was in no small degree a part of what new urbanism has done,” Torti said.

Click here for the July 2017 Ken’s View column.



— The Charter of the New Urbanism

— CNU 2017 Charter Awards

— Torti Gallas + Partners

— Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists

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