I have a huge new crush, HUGE: Andres Duany, founding partner at Duaney Plater-Zyberk & Co, and widely regarded as the Godfather of the New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to end suburban sprawl and ignite a return to urban living. I met Andres in, ironically, downtown Atlanta at a national real estate convention and it was like meeting a real estate George Clooney, maybe better.
And… Andres has great taste in ties.
I have pined to meet this man. You’ve heard me talk about one of my favorite New Urban communities, Seaside in Florida, a 30 plus year old planned community now being replicated across the country, not to mention Highway 30A near Panama City: Andres fingerprints are all over it! Then there’s Watercolor, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach. Here in Texas, Cinnamon Shore is a Seaside clone on the Texas Gulf coast. Andres evoked that hallowed real estate community several times in his presentation.
Full disclosure: I tend to be skeptical of New Urbanism, because I (A) like my car and (B) believe we cannot just wipe out suburbia and herd the masses into mass density. And I really, really like Joel Kotkin.
Well, Andres calmed my fears. He told me that New Urbanism does not mean we are going to take a sledge hammer to suburbia and herd everyone into high density urban multi-fam units like ants. No, I came away with a whole new respect. It may have helped that we were in Atlanta, which sure made me appreciate Dallas all the more. Heck, I might even support tearing down a highway or two. Atlanta is humid, terrible congested and so dang spread out that even security at the airport uses those Segways. Took friends an hour and 45 minutes to drive 25 miles in from Dunwoody downtown. Over cocktails, I told Andres how I had walked the skybridge to PeachTree Mall from the Hilton and how dreadful it was — like walking in a tomb!
Here are rambling notes from his presentation — which filled the house:
The New Urbanism Congress was formed around 1990, a group of 2000 to 3000 people who meet yearly. This year was the 21st Congress. It’s a Protean organization… like the ocean it has a core and depth at the edge, the charter of the New Urbanism at the core. There are 27 principles. The New Urbanism arose out of the private sector, says Duany; smart growth (which some call Big Brother-istic) arose out of the public sector. The best example is Seaside, Florida.
In 1980, Robert Davis wanted to make a place that reminded him of where he grew up as a child. He developed Seaside, a walkable town on the Gulf coast of Florida near Panama City. Davis’ grandfather left him 80 acres of land when he died. He wanted to create a different kind of living place, something more traditional and not dependent on cars. He enlisted the help of architects Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk, two large players in the New Urbanism movement. After the place was built, it increased in popularity as a resort town and gained attention for its groundbreaking planning and architecture. The basic premise is that you should have all your ordinary daily needs within walking distance so much so that a six year old could have the run of the place. Dogs don’t need leashes because there are no cars to get hit by. (The Seaside dog, says Andres, lived to age 18 without ever having been a leash.) You get to Seaside, you park your car and don’t touch it again until you leave. The community began as a vacation beach community and is so photographic, The Truman Show was filmed there. This walkable vision was implemented and embraced, says Andres, because Seaside was a resort: people coming there and living there were on vacation.
Great point: in everyday life we must drive to work, to the market and various chores. So Seaside worked because people were OFF THE CLOCK and there to enjoy the idyllic experience.
In fact, anti-sprawl-ist James Kunstler says Seaside’s reputation has almost been taken too far, and the public has expected it to be a “coal miner’s town for the working class.”
An English professor at Hope College, who lived in Seaside for awhile as part of a program in which she could live in one of the houses to write while its “residents” were at their other home, said she did not feel comfortable living there—the kitchen was upstairs, the “corner grocery store” was too expensive to get real food, and she was starving for “real community” while there. It felt like an empty resort town to her.
If a resort is not Utopian, says Andres, it won’t succeed. Original resort towns were discovered for summering. Davis took the model of resort town and made it fill a Utopian need. Fast forward 33 years later: Seaside now has a public school and church and businesses. A natural evolution brought it to full-time community: the private sector for profit development was an enormous success, so much that people wanted to live there year round. And as I have mentioned, clones sprang up: WaterColor by the St. Joe Company, one the largest landholders in Florida, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach. Cinnamon Shore in Port Aransas is also closely patterned after the original Seaside..
New Urbanism started in the private sector and worked because it proved profitable.
The environmental movement in this country is becoming ever more powerful, says Andres, draconian in its power but yet on the defensive constantly. The environmental movement has discovered urbanism. The claim is that density is the solution to our environmental problem.
The old way of living in a home surrounded by a lot with lots of lots on a street is part of the problem because to get to that lot, you have to drive there.
So does that mean we just ditch the suburbs?
Back to Seaside. At Seaside, some houses were built on stilts for drainage, garages are in the back of the houses, the streets are brick and made for walking, and that private space is redefined by the houses being very close together.
Seaside, says Andres, turned out to be ACCIDENTALLY environmental.
Urbanism tries a high tech solution, but we need to look to the past for low-tech, economical solutions that worked. With so many cities broke, we cannot come up with solutions that cost money. For example: the original green window insulator is thick curtains — that’s the old way.
The underlying revelation, says Andres, is that we are broke. With cities owing so much for pensions, infrastructure and repairs, funds to go green are not available. The least broke city I ever worked, says Andres, is Salt Lake City.
When it comes to the Tea Party, Andres says 10% have a strong case, a full 50% cannot stand the red tape — these are people who have a problem with bureaucracy.
40% are simply maniacs.
The New Urbanism is bringing green tech levels down to the original green. They are studying 1874: how did the Mormons with nothing built over 700,000 villages. The future focus is on low-tech environmentalism and Pink Codes, a reference to any code that reduced red tape.