There are no more excuses.
There are no more excuses for bad development. For streets where no one wants to walk. For neighborhoods where no one wants to live. For places that sap our souls instead of lift our spirits.
The superstars of the back-to-the- future New Urbanism movement, from Andres Duany to Jeff Speck, from Emily Talen to James Howard Kunstler, were in town the past five days. With tours, talks, panels and presentations, the Congress for New Urbanism conference is the Bonnaroo of urban planners. It was a primer in making our cities, towns and villages better places to live, to work, to walk, to bike, to play.
It’s up to us to take what they told us and use it. Unless we absorb the lessons, unless we stop building bad developments, bad streets and bad neighborhoods – and improve the ones we have – the CNU conference might as well as have been held in Burbank.
There’s a science to street design, a right way/wrong way to build – or to change – downtowns, villages, neighborhoods and even suburbs.
It’s no accident that people want to live in Elmwood Village or near Hertel Avenue, or in such Ozzie-and-Harriet villages as East Aurora or recently-refreshed Hamburg. The early 20th-century planners got it right. Houses are on tree-lined streets within a 10-minute walk of a drug store, coffee shop, church, library, dry cleaner, restaurant and bus line.
“The traditional neighborhood is compact, walkable and diverse,” said CNU’s Speck. “It works.”
In the post-WWII suburban model, the pieces of daily life – houses, offices, stores, civic buildings, churches, parks – are each in different areas. The only easy way to get from any “here” to any “there” is by driving. The model is centered around cars, not people.
Although the traditional and suburban models are the extremes, it’s not a battle line. Any place can be made better. Absurdly, a lot of dumb development – parking-space requirements, for instance – is mandated by anti-common sense zoning. But there often are easy fixes. Turning one-way streets into two-ways. Narrowing or removing traffic lanes – which slows vehicles and makes room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks. All of which pumps up business for stores. Losing traffic lanes and widening sidewalks a decade ago spurred Hertel Avenue’s revival.
We can’t depend on elected officials to do it. Whether out of ignorance, laziness or indifference, all but a few of the county’s 16 village mayors and 25 town supervisors were M.I.A. at the CNU. But conference co-chair George Grasser said about three dozen local public officials came, mostly planners. They presumably will use what they learned.
It’s up to us to see that they do. Every new development, every retrofit, every new or reconfigured road should meet New Urbanism standards. The model is no mystery. For the price of dinner, anybody can pick up “The Smart Growth Manual,” by Duany, Speck and Mike Lydon. It’s a small price to pay to avoid building ugly, soul-sapping commercial strips or car-centric developments that people have to live with for decades.
“I think that, because of this conference, we will see less bad development around here,” said Grasser, a real estate consultant. “We’ve educated the community not to let poor planning or poor decisions happen. That’s the big benefit.”
Some places already have caught on. Williamsville’s New Urbanist mayor, Brian Kulpa, is guiding a street/development redesign, to combat a too-wide Main Street that divides a classic commercial strip. Hamburg officials a decade ago enlisted Dan Burden, New Urbanism’s Mr. Fix-It, to re-shape the village – and bump up business – with bike lanes, traffic roundabouts and other people-pleasers. That kind of outreach should be the rule, not the exception. Every place can make its main drag more appealing, its neighborhoods more livable, its new developments better. The price of a consultant can spare you the high economic and aesthetic cost of bad development.
There are no more excuses. CNU has come and gone. They did their part. Now we have to do ours.