Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 11:44 AM
City planners have long argued that America cannot sustain its penchant for big houses on giant lots on once rural land. They say energy demands are too great, and that such neighborhoods also fail in a social way - by isolating people from each other. One alternative is a development design called "new urbanism." It's being embraced from Israel to Australia to Arkansas. As part of Making Change, our continuing coverage of the economy of Northeast Ohio, ideastream's Mark Urycki prepared this report.
New urbanism is also called "neo-traditional design" because it mimics the city neighborhoods laid out in small town America in the early 20th century. Proponents of new urbanism say its smaller lots plant a gentler footprint on the environment. And they say it has something that the suburbs lack - namely, the social interaction of urbanity. Cleveland architect Paul Volpe says that's what Americans like so much about New York, San Francisco, and European cities.
Paul Volpe: The way I describe it is the places we love are the places we go on vacation, and why does that have to be the exception? Why can't that be what we have every single day when you go out the door? A great neighborhood, an intimate environment, shopping just down the street and you keep the car in the garage. You can have that.
New Urbanism revolves around the pedestrian, not, as in most suburban allotments, the automobile. It's a return to the town neighborhood where people can walk down the block to a bakery - or they might actually live upstairs from one. Cleveland State Professor Tom Bier.
Tom Bier: The suburban style that emerged out of the 1960s, the cul de sac way of life, where nothing was in walking distance, no store, no recreational facility was within walking distance, no sidewalks. Well, that is fading as a preferred style.
Several small communities like North Royalton and Solon are actually looking to build a downtown. Terry Schwartz, who teaches at the Cleveland Urban Design Center, finds some suburbanites are beginning to tire of the isolation and are looking for some civic identity.
Terry Schwartz: We do a lot of work in the townships. There is this yearning people have for that sense of connectedness. Even though the thought of high-density residential or rental units above storefronts and that kind of thing may not play out in Concord Twp. or Brimfield Twp., the idea of a place where you can go, do more than one thing, pay your bills, visit city hall and get a building permit, do a little shopping have a green space, a library.
Shopping centers are trying on the urban look in places like Legacy Village in Lyndhurst or Crocker Park in Westlake. Crocker actually has residential units to complete the look of a city - even if it's a private city. And if Legacy is only a simulated village, Schwartz sees people using it as a real one.
Terry Schwartz: If you drive there early in the morning, you find people walking their dogs there. How do they do that? They must drive there, park in the parking lot, get the dog out and walk around the neighborhood. So it succeeds in its way because I think people really do like having a pleasant setting to be and to congregate away from the risks and surprises of a real urban place.
New urbanist housing developments have been built both inside and outside the city. They reject the large lots and giant driveways of suburbia. Instead of large, dominant garages with attached houses, they feature houses with front porches and backyard garages that are accessed by small service alleys. The homes are on small lots placed close to the street. Developers not only leave some open land as shared green space for the residents, they also encourage some retail - like a coffee shop or grocery store where people can gather. Cleveland's Beacon Place and Mill Creek developments are examples. In Akron, the most recent housing developments have followed that model.
Developers Tony Troppe and Todd Ederer are building one such project between the Ohio Canal towpath and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad tracks not far from downtown Akron. They believe people yearn for this traditional, pre-World War II neighborhood layout of their Hickory Street development. First Troppe.
Tony Troppe: I'm really a student of the past, and I look historically and I travel around and look at great neighborhoods and this form really is a place that builds community, builds a great place that invites neighborhood interaction. I think if people are given this choice they will look long and hard at living closer to each other and to the city.
Todd Ederer: You look at the rejuvenation in many historic areas in many towns across the country, so there is a demand to live in places like that. We are not unique here at Hickory with traditional neighborhood development. This is occurring across the country and the interest is market driven and market proven.
But the market hasn't always embraced it. Barberton tried to construct a New Urbanist neighborhood on farmland outside the city, but it failed to attract buyers. Terry Schwartz of the Urban Design Center says while some suburbanites may be attracted to the design, city dwellers in the Lee Miles area of Cleveland were turned off.
Terry Schwartz: This particular neighborhood has remained viable for a very long time because it emulates the suburbs. There are single family houses on larger lots. And for that population, that demographic the suburbs look like success. I mean trying to recreate the urban neighborhoods that at least in the city of Cleveland have really struggled - that language, that vocabulary didn't really play in that kind of setting.
City officials in Cleveland and Akron once thought suburban style houses might attract people back to the city. Now both communities have embraced new urbanism - which they often call true urbanism - for the advantages it always had.