Livable cities with an old-timey feel

June 02, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

BRING ON ''skinny streets'' to create safer, more intimate, walkable neighborhoods, says a citizen-government alliance called Livable Oregon. Narrower roadways create prettier settings, seal less land under asphalt, decrease storm-water runoff and actually create higher property values.

And if highway engineers object, tell them a new day is dawning, and that fire engines can get through 24-foot streets as easily as through 34-footers.

Economic growth and more human-scale development -- the kind of neighborhoods we built before World War II -- can go hand-in-hand, argues Livable Oregon.

Two thousand miles to the east, Bluegrass Tomorrow, operating in the horsy counties around Lexington, Kentucky, is saying: ''Whoa -- let's look where we're headed. How do we save our bluegrass from the sprawl?'' Its recently published handbook helps communities use traditional town-planning principles to build neighborhoods that are not just attractive and efficient, but have a strong sense of place.

Visitors to Charleston, South Carolina, are being given a folder, ''How You Can Take Part of Charleston Home With You.'' It proclaims that historic and gracious Charleston's principles of good urban design can be applied anywhere to create neighborhoods with a mix of housing types, shops, parks, civic buildings -- all within a short walk.

But there's a problem, says the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in this pamphlet: The rigid zoning laws most American communities have adopted ''make it illegal to build new neighborhoods that resemble the best of Charleston.'' Unless laws are changed to allow compact and attractive neighborhoods, says the league, ''healthy urban centers like historic Charleston will suffer, with growth in the suburban fringe bleeding the cities of employers, tax revenues and a diverse community life.''

Groups like Livable Oregon, Bluegrass Tomorrow and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League are increasingly in the news, fighting sprawl, championing compact development, urging zoning and code changes to encourage a return to traditional town planning across America.

Some, like the New York-based Regional Plan Association, have been in business since early in the century. Others, such as the Bay Area's Greenbelt Alliance, 1,000 Friends of Oregon, 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, are in robust middle age. Among the youngest are New Jersey Future and the Queen City Congress in Charlotte, North Carolina.

None of the groups is government-sponsored. A good number, in fact, started life fighting unwanted growth but soon realized that the only way to preserve valued natural areas is to build more densely in cities and towns.

Sometimes, notes Peter Katz, outgoing director of the Congress for New Urbanism (a national organization that's helped network many of these organizations), the groups end up supporting dense development that some neighborhoods oppose in the familiar NIMBY (''Not In My Back Yard'') syndrome.

Yet these advocacy organizations also press both governments and developers to minimize sterile land uses and loss of open space. Their goal is to find win-win solutions -- the ultimate would be a plan both the Sierra Club and the local home builders could agree on. They try to rally forces around a coherent physical model that delivers multiple benefits -- land conservation, attractive design, less infrastructure cost -- rather than some single cause like affordable housing or saving wetlands.

Urbanist movement

Mr. Katz believes that the New Urbanist movement, spreading rapidly through the planning and architecture professions in the '90s, even hitting USA Weekend and the cover of Newsweek, has given the advocacy groups a big lift. For the first time in decades, Americans are being exposed to the idea that traditionally designed, Main Street-type towns don't need to be historic relics, but can be built anew in our time.

Combine that with a growing revulsion against standardized mega-roads, big-box retailing and characterless subdivisions, and the potential for a new American development pattern begins to emerge.

Critics counter that Americans are still alarmingly tolerant of urban decay and wasteful development, and are more interested in property rights than community life. Changing that attitude in the development industry, from home builders to highway engineers, will be agonizingly slow.

But the Greenbelt Alliance is getting some California localities to vote for urban-growth boundaries. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology has organized a ''metropolitan initiative'' to coax the federal government into shifting policies to support citizen-based initiatives (check www.cnt.org on the Internet).

And the Local Government Commission in Sacramento, California, an alliance of local officials and citizens, is working on a model of sustainable economic development to supplement the ''Ahwahnee Principles,'' an influential regional and neighborhood land-use model for American communities that leading New Urbanist architects drew up in 1991.

And those efforts are just a tiny sampling. Add them up, and you can't be 100 percent pessimistic.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is: npeircitistates.com

Pub Date: 6/02/97

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