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Infrastructure Should Add Value

John Norquist, The Congress for the New Urbanism

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John Norquist is President and CEO of The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and was mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004. CNU is a leader in promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl.

All communities can create a sense of place by how they position buildings. The lessons of urbanism can be applied whether they are a big central city or a rural hamlet. We are used to thinking that sprawl was created by the market and that if we’d planned more we could have stopped it from happening. However, sprawl happened because of human intervention. The two main causes of sprawl are separate use zoning and specialized roads.

Separate use zoning came out of misplaced idealism at the beginning of the twentieth century that the complicated, over-crowded city needed to be aired out. It took all the ingredients of a community and spread them across the landscape.

NorquistTraditionally roads served three purposes in an urban setting—movement, economic/retail, and social/living. Since the post war period, we have specialized in creating roads with only one purpose—movement. The visually seductive highways and towers of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow inspired planners to group housing by income, thus segregating sections of the population and defeating the complexity of the city.

After the First World War, Walter Gropius, one of the shapers of the Modernist Movement, became the director of the Bauhaus. In 1937, he was appointed to teach at Harvard where he formed a group called the Architects Collaborative. Gropius believed that the empires that caused World War I and their architecture were bad. He led the charge to delete the old rules of architectural design. He influenced generations of architects and designers. The traditional city style, with vistas terminated at T-intersections, disappeared in an attempt to update everything under segregation of use, highways, and towers.

However, developers are now rediscovering the old rules. Life-style malls are recreating Main Street America. Companies like Target have discovered that stores located at terminated vistas are the preferred location. If we look at Dundas Street in Toronto’s China Town, there is one moving lane in each direction, all-day parking on the street, and retail on the first floor with apartments or commercial uses above. People love this street. It is congested, you can’t drive down it at 45 miles per hour, but congestion is like cholesterol, you have to have some in a vibrant environment.

AudienceSince World War II, we have been building office spaces in green fields. This provides ample parking but there’s nowhere to walk to for lunch. The cost of the infrastructure required to support these spaces has to be subsidized, and the cost to the environment is substantial. At the same time we have been tearing down the tax bases in cities to improve traffic levels. We’ve been chasing the seductive highways and towers of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow without regard for the effects on a community’s sense of place and the environment.

What Can We Do to Repair the Damage?
The Congress for the New Urbanism specializes in retrofitting urban sprawl. Some of John’s recommendations to allow cities to heal and repair post World War II damage are:

  • Remove requirements for setbacks and add build-to lines

  • Remove ordinances that require off-street parking

  • Allow all day on-street parking, even during rush hour

  • Price parking meters so that eighty percent are taken and twenty percent are available at any given time

  • Change zoning requirements to allow retail on the lower level with living space above

  • Work with big box retailers to infill vacant lots

  • Review the transit system

  • Don’t tear down your tax base to improve traffic levels

  • Build streets and boulevards, not highways

  • Don’t build freeways in big cities, they undermine the efficiencies of the grid

  • Build roads on a grid instead of cul-de-sacs

  • Put complexity back in cities

  • Make sure all infrastructure improvements add value

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development
All cities have a role to play in addressing climate change. Pollution is most severe when the population is spread out and vehicle miles travelled is high. LEED for Neighborhood Development is a collaboration among the U.S. Green Building Council, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Currently in its pilot period, this program will integrate the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into the first national system for neighborhood design. The program will recognize communities and developers who build with density in connected cities that have mixed uses.


If you have any questions, please contact: 
Colleen Layton, or Arnold Weinfeld, .




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