CitiStates Report: New Urbanists' Prophecies Coming True
By NEAL PEIRCE
Web-posted: 3:33 p.m. Dec. 2, 2000
They were like prophets without honor in their own house.
A group of South Florida architects and town planners, they gained respect across
America for setting the pace in designing more attractive, humane, sustainable American
communities in the 21st century.
But they had little success in South Florida -- until now.
In a time of sprawling sterility, they said let's get back to building the kind
of Main Street towns and welcoming neighborhoods Americans recall the most fondly.
These would favor people over cars -- tucking garages in the rear, for example,
and often restoring the front porch to the American home. The designs had orderly
block layouts, innovative livability features and a balanced combination of residential,
civic and commercial uses.
This so-called New Urbanist movement was pioneered by architects such as Andres
Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Victor Dover -- all of Miami, all with a history
of association with the University of Miami and its School of Architecture.
At the same time, a parallel group of planners emerged touting a second message:
Get the citizenry involved in these new community designs. Don't accede to developers
coming up with their one-size-fits-all tract developments, they said. Instead, bring
people back into the planning of their communities. Democratize development.
These pioneers comefrom the northern part of the region, most particularly Dan Cary
and then Michael Busha, successive heads of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning
In espousing public participation, the two men turned the council into virtually
the only public agency in America ready to contract its service to any and all communities
interested in a citizen-based planning process.
South Florida's most progressive county land use plan now is doubtless the "Managed
Growth Tier System" written by Palm Beach County Planning Director Frank Duke
and his colleagues during months of consultation with a panel of 50 citizens. With
the county divided into various tiers -- urban/suburban along the coast to rural,
conservation, agricultural reserve and a special category for the 'Glades -- there's
apparently real seriousness about helter-skelter land consumption.
Just as critical are the values Palm Beach has officially endorsed, starting with
"the creation, enhancement and maintenance of livable communities."
The elements specifically listed include central neighborhood or community focal
points, a compact, diverse mix of housing, higher density residential near commercial
centers and transit stops, an assurance of neighborhood/community parks, safe and
appealing sidewalks or pathways, bike paths, equestrian paths, and easily available
public transit in cities and suburbs.
The task of "selling" New Urbanist approaches to the public wasn't automatic
however. A 1998 Mellman Group survey of 600 South Floridians (200 from each major
county), asked them what community qualities they found most important. The three
top picks were quality schools, neighborhoods with a sense of community, and parks
and open spaces. "Living near your office or job" and access to public
transit were ranked low.
The apparent conclusion: South Floridians were willing to trade off commuting for
quality schools and communities. But there was a time lag -- the people polled clearly
weren't yet focused on the looming regional highway gridlock.
It's about livability
The new century message about livability had one of its earliest voices in the historic
preservationists of the late 1980s who were determined to save South Miami Beach's
immense, human-scaled and quite irreplaceable collection of art deco buildings.
A close ally in the struggle was the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation,
which was fighting to preserve storefronts, restore parks, and widen sidewalks to
It turned out that South Miami Beach neighborhoods could actually be marketed to
private investors -- not just as art deco but also part of an urban, tropical, offbeat
environment. Hundreds of buildings -- most, in fact, two- and three-story apartment
buildings -- were rehabbed. And then commercial development clicked in.
For a year 2000 update, check the crowds surging through the Lincoln Road shops
and restaurants, seven days a week and close to 24 hours a day. Neisen Kasdin, who
had been the early leader of the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation,
is now mayor of Miami Beach. The majority on the commission now favors preservation
We heard from some readers complaining of overdevelopment in South Beach. Crowding,
traffic nightmares, expensive parking is "asphyxiating our quality of life,"
one wrote. Others complained of displacement of lower-income people.
From Miami Beach redevelopment advocates, there's a clear reply: Revival does complicate,
does carry some downsides. It's necessary to work on housing for displaced families.
But who would want to go back to yesteryear's urban devastation?
Moving onto the South Florida scene in the '90s, the New Urbanists aimed to take
the spunky community-based spirit of Miami Beach and translate it into a new, democratic
planning approach that has now been tried in hundreds of communities, in South Florida
and nationwide. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
The most prominent of their tools is called a charrette -- a week of intense discussions
on how a particular town or neighborhood ought to be developed.
By "incorporating the will of the citizenry," Dover explains, charrettes
provide a unique way to build momentum and enthusiasm for rebuilding communities
-- reversing disappointing 20th century urban forms a lot more quickly.
To enlist participation, open invitations are sent for all interested citizens;
typically 50 to 100 attend at least the opening and closing sessions. Thoroughly
briefed by a designer team that has studied the neighborhood in detail, the citizens
spend a day in small groups, formulating pictures, ideas, of the community they
would like. Then they come together and discuss their plans and ideas. "It's
amazing," Busha says: "By the time the sixth or eighth group has reported,
even people who don't like each other are coming up with the same ideas."
Then it's back to the designers, working to translate what the citizens have identified
as their preferences into real design and master planning documents.
Can't please everyone
The contrast to standard U.S. development practice couldn't be more vivid. Typically,
a developer cooks up a plan. There's the obligatory public hearing. If the proposal
contains any controversial elements, the NIMBYs -- "Not In My Back Yard"
advocates -- roll out at some hearing to trash it. There is no real debate about
context, alternatives, or long-term community goals. Oftentimes the ultimate decision
hangs on politicos deciding between campaign cash the developer's offering and potential
backlash from angry residents.
The charrette avoids that ugly process by inviting thoughtful citizen participation
before designs are made, or plans finalized. It assures citizen buy-in. It provides
politicos with a solid base of public consent -- even when development forces may
try to manipulate a process.
Dover recalls a key incident from the South Miami process, conducted in 1992, shortly
after Hurricane Andrew. The 300-plus citizens who turned out for the charrette said
they wanted Sunset Drive, the community's main artery, tamed and made more pedestrian-friendly
by reduction from five to three lanes. Later the developer and his consultant came
back, asserting that traffic concerns required a five-lane roadway. Result? The
community stakeholders came out in force, declaring "Hold on! This is our plan!"
One citizen-architect stood up and said to the developer: "You think this road
is a driveway to your mall. We think it's the community's living room. We want it
built the way we envisioned."
But do the plans the designers and citizens conceive make business sense? Even some
friends of the process worry there is insufficient financial reality in the products.
The current political dogfight over the Kendall charrette-born plan, backed by local
citizens and businesses but under attack from the Dadeland Mall, which fears insufficient
expansion space, illustrates how hard it may be to please all players.
Another sobering note: Salamanca, the major New Urbanist development proposed for
southwestern Miami-Dade County, was opposed by neighbors fearful of added traffic
and rejected by the County Commission in 1999.
Charrettes don't need to carry the whole burden for democratized development. There
are two techniques, being tried in selected regions across the U.S.A., that South
Florida has yet to adopt widely, and could make a real difference.
The first is called visualization.
Imagine a developer wants to remake and enlarge a neighborhood center near you.
Or that you and your neighbors want to consider all sorts of alternatives. At a
community meeting, with an assist from your local government or university planning
department, you'll see a big three-dimensional view of the site. Sitting there and
talking, you can order up different streetfront designs, change the location and
spaces between the buildings, select different paving materials, experiment with
signs, trees, street furniture.
The computer will even let you take a virtual walk or drive through the scene, even
a virtual flyover -- as the developer suggests, but as you may prefer, too.
Ten years ago, it would have taken cruise-missile level technology to do this. Today,
it's available on a laptop. New software called CommunityViz, developed by Michael
Kwartler of New York and being readied for low-cost national distribution by the
Orton Foundation, adds in real-time data on costs of roadways, sewers and other
changes, constantly recalculating as different scenarios are tried.
New software called PLACES gets to issues of transportation and energy impacts of
various design and planning choices. UrbanSim, a program pushed by a top New Urbanist
development firm, Fregenose Calthorpe, lets a user calculate the effects of road
changes on humans, all the way through to levels of road rage.
The second step for South Florida? Do a series of mega-charrettes, backed up by
the new technology with people from Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade mingling. Consider
the 1.8-million-by-2020-population projection and debate honestly, openly where
the new growth ought to go. Even if a consensus wasn't reached -- and it might not
be -- the true, regionwide issues would be a lot clearer.
How can the emerging technologies, starting with neighborhood planning programs,
be made available to ordinary citizens, businesses, people interested in new development
possibilities and futures? One solution: walk-in urban design centers in West Palm
Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, designed to marry the worlds of professional design
and grassroots activism.
Ideally, architecture or planning departments from local universities would run
these centers. Information on the whole gamut of planning challenges -- from single
transit stops or suburban neighborhood centers to growth corridors, waterfronts
and affordable housing -- would be available.
Such centers are already open and operating in such varied places as Chattanooga,
Birmingham, Little Rock and Portland, Ore., with very favorable reports on their
performance. For democratized development in South Florida, they might represent
a dramatic breakthrough.