Development & Design: What’s ‘New’ in New Urbanism

While New Urbanist developments are not the only types of multi-housing projects that are being built today, the movement’s precepts have swept the industry over the past 20 years or more, and become common wisdom among multifamily developers, big and small alike.

The paradigm-shifting movement adapts to current as well as future conditions

[For the magazine version of this article containing illustrations, click here.]

By Keat Foong, Executive Editor

In an interview with Multi-Housing News a few years ago, one of Andres Duany’s responses was, “We won.”

Indeed, it may seem that Duany, founding principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., and a founder of the New Urbanism, was correct in that assessment. While New Urbanist developments are not the only types of multi-housing projects that are being built today, the movement’s precepts have swept the industry over the past 20 years or more, and become common wisdom among multifamily developers, big and small alike.
If anything, “mixed-use,” “transit-oriented,” multi-housing in “24-7” environments are all the rage in 2014.

Multi-housing developments sited on a street grid offering storefront retail, entertainment and work options are places in which people, especially the newer generations, want to live, and places where consumers will pay more to live in.

Indeed, in a study published in the journal Real Estate Economics in 2001, Charles Tu, currently professor of real estate at the University of San Diego, and Mark Eppli, professor of finance at Marquette University, had tried to show that New Urbanist developments retained higher property values. The study said that home buyers paid a premium of: 14.9 percent to live in Kentlands, 4.1 percent to live in Laguna West, and 10.3 percent to live in Southern Village.

Given the New Urbanists’ record of taking the lead, it would be of interest to see what is next for the prescient movement. Suburban retrofitting, urban agriculture and tactical urbanism are all in the mix in the second-generation New Urbanist projects. Also, the movement is paying greater attention to affordable housing and green building—U.S. Green Building Council has adopted LEED for Neighborhood Development certification in collaboration with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council. And in concert with a range of players, movement members are among those advocating for the conversion to appropriate zoning and building codes that would make possible New Urbanist developments.

One over-arching trend in the movement is the diversification from building projects on conventional large-scale development sites, as they have generally done in the 1990s, to designing for a multiplicity of types of projects—in many cases involving piecemeal “fixes” to improve the built environment. “In the early days, the only assignments were greenfields and new neighborhood projects,” says Victor Dover, principal and co-founder of the town planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners, and a former national chair of CNU. By contrast, revitalizing historic districts, retrofitting suburbs and rethinking brownfields are some of the types of projects practitioners are branching into today, he says.

Suburban retrofit

Suburban retrofits in particular, are becoming more numerous. In contrast to the wholesale urban renewal projects of the 1960s, these retrofits recreate neighborhoods and town centers for the benefit of the existing residents, says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founder and principal of DPZ. Conversions of malls to towns make sense to the real estate owners, especially with regards to commercial properties with short-term values that have already completed their depreciation, she adds.

Developers also understand that New Urbanist retrofits may offer a solution for under-performing assets. “They can imagine a better future for the properties,” says Plater-Zyberk. DPZ has worked on proposals for about two dozen suburban retrofits, and Plater-Zyberk agrees that suburban retrofits definitely constitute a growing trend.

In particular, the redevelopment of suburban retail properties offers unique opportunities for multi-housing. “Multifamily housing is the leading retrofit” in suburban retrofits, says Plater-Zyberk: The retail component is often already present at the site, and what is absent and possibly needed in quantity is multifamily housing. Most larger New Urbanist remakes of suburban projects will, she notes, contain some components of multifamily housing.

“It used to be that single family residents would not want to be near multifamily developments, but people now understand that you can mix single family, multifamily and retail. Small quantities can make for beautiful places,” adds Plater-Zyberk.

Urban agriculture

Urban agriculture may be another development trend of the future, and New Urbanists may yet again be the leading players. The “back to the land” food movement is a major and still-growing trend in the U.S., as many multifamily players are starting to take note. In the future, the range of agriculture, from rooftop gardens to community gardens to full-fledged farming communities, could be incorporated into multifamily developments. For example, there may even be special-interest farming communities built for those who want to live in communities that grow their own food.

In his book “Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism,” Duany identifies four models: Agricultural Retention (“techniques” to “save existing farmland”); Urban Agriculture (“cultivation within existing cities and suburbs,” such as community gardens, or gardens on private yards and rooftops); Agricultural Urbanism (“settlements equipped with working farms” with few of the residents necessarily participating in the farms); and Agrarian Urbanism (settlements in which “the entire society” is involved with the production of food in the community).

Plater-Zyberk says that urban agriculture is “appropriate under certain circumstances, but not all,” and this type of living arrangement is not necessarily desired by all residents. Nevertheless, multifamily developments contain amounts of open spaces and maintained gardens that, where appropriate, could conceivably be designed in different formats to produce food, she says. The agricultural components also need to be “right sized.”

Tactical New Urbanism

Smaller-scale New Urbanist projects constitute another trend that is being witnessed today that may not have manifested in the earlier days of the movement. “There is now burgeoning interest in projects that are quicker to produce, lower cost and have more impact.” These projects may not require as much land; they may obtain quicker approvals; and they adhere to the notion of “lighter, cheaper, quicker,” says Dover.

Piecemeal remakes of highways, streets or meridians would fall under this category of tactical New Urbanism. John Massengale, principal at Massengale & Co., a specialist in walkability and the town architect of
Seaside, Fla., and Dover are the co-authors of the just-released book, “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns.”
The book presents and analyzes some of the greatest streets, roads and boulevards of the world.

“Walkable streets are very much what’s new in New Urbanism this year,” says Massengale. Indeed, there is a “Complete Streets” movement around the country. Massengale says that Complete Streets policies and legislation have been passed in over 600 jurisdictions and 25 states at last count. “Many cities are turning one-way downtown streets into two-way streets and widening sidewalks to make streets more walkable and pedestrian friendly.”

In contrast to the past, more and more cities today are “clamoring” to change streets “from transportation corridors to destinations designed to encourage people to get out of their cars and walk,” says Massengale.

Smaller apartment projects

At the project level, smaller New Urbanist multifamily or mixed-use projects are being created on infill sites. These are “small-scale incremental infill developments of 10 to 20 units, not 200 units at a time,” says Dover. “For years, it was thought that the only way to develop [New Urbanist] multifamily housing was by producing a few hundred units at a time.” Dover says that designers are learning to perfect the 10-to-20-unit New Urbanist multifamily project, designed with, for example, front doors opening onto the sidewalks.

The piecemeal New Urbanist solutions may also involve the integration of “towers in the park” into the city block. Massengale points out that New York University’s plan to expand in Greenwich Village, New York, might have encountered less community opposition if it were based on a street grid. “This is an absolutely perfect site to infill and open up streets.” Instead, the university has proposed superblocks and towers. In another case, New York City had proposed to allow the building of luxury housing high-rises on public housing land. Rather than the “towers in the park” approach, the better alternative would be to offer mixed-income, mixed-use and variegated housing types and to “re-knit the projects back to the urban fabric,” says Massengale.

Affordable housing

In many cases, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, HUD FHA 221(d)(4) and other financing program rules simply do not allow for the type of small-scale, mixed-use, “shop above the store” housing that are advocated by the New Urbanism. For example, Fannie Mae financing limits retail to not more than 20 percent of the property value. This requirement can have the effect of forcing up the number of floors in buildings, if retail storefront space is to be offered.

Some of these rules “have had a very chilling effect on what most Americans would consider mainstream housing,” says John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

One of the initiatives of the New Urbanism is to advocate for expanding some of these basic multifamily financing rules which “encourage separate-use development and discourage mixed-use housing,” says Norquist. And that, he explains, is one way to expand the supply of affordable housing—by enabling small-scale storefront housing to be built in affordable markets across U.S. “There is almost no policy discussion about providing for [affordable housing] other than the dream of expanding [affordable housing programs]”—which is not likely to happen any time soon, says Norquist. The solution for now “is to change the rules and regulations that make it difficult to build affordable housing.”

Form-based codes

Although there is widespread acceptance of urbanist principles, there still exists, in Plater-Zyberk’s words, “an enormous invisible structure” that prevents designers and developers from creating the walkable living environments they desire. These obstacles include the pre-existing regulatory, code, traffic and other public works frameworks that still exist, suggests Plater-Zyberk.

Nonetheless, progress is being made in overcoming some of the structural impediments, as the principles of New Urbanism become more accepted at all levels of society, among the citizenry, public officials and practitioners. For example, a big drive is currently in effect to convert the post-World War II use-based local zoning and building codes to form-based codes which place greater control on the design, or form, of the projects. These codes could require, for example, buildings to be eased to the property line, wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes.

DPZ created the Smartcode, a form-based code used by the City of Sonoma that has been adapted for Miami, areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana, Taos, N.M., Jamestown, R.I., Lawrence, R.I., other cities in the U.S., and as far away as Romania. Plater-Zyberk says the Smartcode is now being utilized in over 200 small towns and cities.

“What we did not [accomplish] in the beginning, and have now perfected, are form-based codes,” says Plater-Zyberk. “We are learning from historical places that people love.” Furthermore, as the New Urbanist movement looks to history, it also continues to evolve to adapt to current needs.

To comment, e-mail Keat Foong at