A Transit Stop for All

The New Urbanist movement, which advocates a return to traditional town planning concepts, prompted nothing short of a paradigm shift in architecture, design, and planning across the real estate industry. Walkable, mixed-use, high-density neighborhood designs are now accepted as norms in multi-housing development. Andres Duany, principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co. (DPZ), is a founder of The New Urbanist movement, and he continues to be a thought leader in the design of communities.Keat Foong, MHN executive editor, interviews Duany about the demise of suburban sprawl, the importance of visual variety in neighborhood design, and how developers can use design principles to increase return on investment. How will the economic and financial crises impact multifamily development? Multifamily buildings have a future insofar as they occur within an urban fabric—a new neighborhood or a historic one. This is because an urban street life is the sole compensation for living without a yard, as you do when you live in an apartment. There is no such thing as a good townhouse without a town. Without urbanism, apartment clusters surrounded by parking lots are waiting rooms for people who cannot afford houses. The existing ones, isolated in suburban sprawl, have a future, [author James] Kunstler says, as ruins, slums or salvage yards.What common mistakes do you see in mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly projects? A common mistake is to still think in terms of great monocultures of apartment buildings. A social or economic monoculture is as brittle and vulnerable as one in nature. It is important to get the diversity of building types up, with apartment houses, perimeter apartment blocks, townhouses, live/work units—and even a few houses. Nearby shops for the ordinary daily needs, and sociable eateries are essential—and they cost less and raise value more than the usual immensity of dopey landscaping and desiccated pool houses. A transit stop within walking distance is going to become a checklist item for buyers and renters. How do you think developers can improve sales or leasing rates? Even if they can’t use better architects, there should be more of them in every project. That is the only way to avoid the monotony that destroys your soul. No architects can falsify the visual variety which is the essence of urbanism. What makes for attractive aesthetics in the multifamily product? Buildings with a base, a middle and a top. High ceilings (10-feet high) that allow elegantly proportioned windows and french balconies. Then save on the facade with simplicity, simplicity and simplicity. Avoid all that expensive wiggling of the plan and the sections. Avoid the expensive egg-crates of balconies—which are used principally for storage and become vertical blight. Hide the parking lots behind the buildings. Verify the truth of these [points] by visiting ultra-high value cities such as Boston, Washington, London and Paris.What is the future of New Urbanism in this century? The New Urbanism is the core of green design—compactness preserves nature; walkability and mixed-use supports transit—and so viral everywhere. It is now part of the epic debates on infrastructure and agriculture. It is an interesting position, being simultaneously conservative and avant-garde.How are the current economic and financial crises affecting your practice? We’re concentrating on three things: 1. Developing an agricultural urbanism (“Growing food is the new golf”) 2. The retrofit of suburbia—especially the conversion of moribund malls to town centers by adding apartments, offices and hotels and 3. Regional planning—now that global warming makes it imperative and the demise of suburban sprawl makes it possible. How can multifamily developers compete better in the tough economic climate? Drop the specializing on apartment buildings. Build neighborhoods. Balance the risk and reach out for more market segments with many building types. And stop cynically calling it “products” for heaven’s sake! Have a little respect for people’s homes. [Building neighborhoods] is now easier with the demise of the dumbed-down financial protocols that required bundles of identical mortgages. Simpleminded specialists are out. Complex networked thinking at every level is the only chance. This country has been so obscenely wealthy for so long that it could afford something as expensive as suburban sprawl, with all the public expenditures for infrastructure and all the private ones for cars. But those days are over—permanently. We now go back to our roots, to those places built when we were poorer and therefore had to be a lot smarter. Developers will be town founders again, and not an embarrassment to their children.What’s next for Andres Duany?With the help of some wake-up slaps from the mortgage mess, peak oil and global warming, everyone is a New Urbanist now—whether they call themselves that or not. There are about half a dozen books in my head, or at 80 percent completion. I want to finish them, and to drink more scotch and smoke more cigars, and laugh, before the green Puritanism puts a tax on it. To comment, e-mail keat.foong@nielsen.com.