Over the past several years, I have read extensively regarding the concept of “New Urbanism” – an over thirty-year old approach to rethinking how we live, work, and play. Simply put, up until the 1950s we built communities where people could easily walk to needed destinations (the store, the theatre, school) right out their front door. Following that, a trend towards sub-urbanism emerged, where people sought lower housing prices by moving out of town into newly developing communities.
Eventually, enough people move into these sub-urban communities that various retail stores begin to emerge (sometimes as a part of a thoughtful plan, sometimes not). These often evolve into “power centers,” which I’m sure you’ve seen: a grocery store and drug store combination, some national chains like Panera Bread, Starbucks, and Taco Bell. Surely there will be a Michaels, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot nearby. Maybe an IHOP for the weekend family pancake stuff-yourself-a-thon.
Regardless, there will be one inescapable feature: asphalt, and lots of it. You will find yourself driving to one destination (“Best Buy”) to pick up a new case for your iPhone, then reenter your car to drive less than a mile to fight the parking lot struggle again…this time for a brief stop into a trendy sports store (“REI”) to get some new hiking shoes. You’ll need them, but not for scenic walks. Rather, for regular treks across pavement as you drive between unremarkably designed storefronts every weekend.
These power centers differ little from town to town and have homogenized our lives into a shared experience that many find unsatisfying. Enter the concept of “New Urbanism.” Like any transformational idea, New Urbanism attracts cult-like apostles, rabid naysayers, and about everything in between.
Given the limits of space in this article, I cannot begin to address all of the positive aspects and negative criticisms of the New Urbanism movement. Some good starting points on that are in the book, “Community by Design” by Hall & Porterfield and many resources at the Congress for New Urbanism website (www.cnu.org). But for me, creating town centers with parking on the periphery, walkable streets, and mixed-use commercial centers can accomplish many admirable goals:
- It invites the inclusion of green spaces and gathering places in the center of town.
- It prioritizes interesting architecture that gives a community its own sense of being.
- It “feeds itself” as retail and commercial spaces co-mingle with residential spaces, providing a ready consumer market.
- It promotes smaller, locally-owned businesses that become an integral part of emerging, dynamic communities.
- It increases market values (especially compared to traditional development) and maintains valuations over time.
Recently, I observed the purchase of an older commercial complex with the announcement, “Dollar General and Sally Beauty to Anchor New Commercial Development.” I am not trying to belittle either of those businesses, but the mental picture of what this development would look like was crystal clear long before opening the article. I think we can do better with just a little extra effort and that is core to my belief in New Urbanism. It is also the mission of our company, Premium Property Trust, as we find ways to use good design and New Urbanism principles to positively affect the lives of communities.