New Urbanism and the Meltdown

sidewalk bordered by picket fences in the Kentlands, near Gaithersburg, Maryland

   The New Urbanism was meant for such a time as this. The global meltdown has crushed the financial, real estate, construction, and architectural markets, as everyone (except for maybe a few hermits) now knows. How can the New Urbanism help with such an unprecedented catastrophe?

   Many people think they know the story of the New Urbanism over the past thirty years, and how it has created compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that quickly became highly desirable, redefining the upper end of nearly every real estate market they inhabited.

   Property values in traditional neighborhoods were spiking long before the general market did. We vacationed in Seaside from the late 1980s until we moved to South Beach in 2003, and for years, we toyed with the idea of buying a second home in Seaside. Dreamsicle, a tiny 700 square foot cottage on the Rosewalk, came on the market in 1994 at $290,000. We seriously considered it, and probably would have done it had the rental income allowed us to break even with the monthly expenses... but it didn’t. So for an architect who had just hung out his shingle three years previously, it was a bridge too far. Four years later, during our annual Labor Day vacation at Seaside, we saw that Dreamsicle was for sale again. They had simply flipped the digits... to $920,000. Four years later, in 2002, Dreamsicle was once again for sale, and they flipped the digits again... to $2,900,000! This tiny cottage had escalated to over $4,000 per square foot! There are similar stories on the eastern side of the Atlantic, most notably in Prince Charles’ new town of Poundbury.

   For most people, the story stops there. To them, the New Urbanism has been a huge value-creation device that benefitted those who were agile enough to buy into a neighborhood early and watch the prices skyrocket. But that’s not the real story of the New Urbanism at all... the creation of unprecedented value in place after place was just a pleasant side-effect (for those who participated.) The real story is far different. The core principles of the New Urbanism are ideas that made the movement a highly enticing (and very profitable) niche when the market was good. But those same principles will be essential to survival in the long post-meltdown winter.

   Being able to walk to work was once considered a non-essential nicety. But there will be a billion cars on the road in 7 to 10 years in China and India that don’t even exist today. There’s no question what will happen to gas prices when those billion cars are competing with the rest of our vehicles for fuel. And when gas prices start spiking again, people with a long commute are going to be in a serious bind, and will have to make difficult choices. Last summer, service industry people forced to live far from work by the lack of nearby affordable housing were already finding it impossible to make ends meet with gas prices hovering near $4/gallon. As those billion cars start to come online, more and more of the population will be faced with those same tough choices. The ability to make a living where you’re living is banned by law and by deed restriction in almost every American subdivision... but it’s built into the very fabric of the New Urbanism.

   Being able t0 walk to the grocery, to the bank, to the pharmacy, to the hardware store, to the gym, and to the other necessities of life has for years been considered a somewhat frivolous advantage of living in a traditional neighborhood. But what about when those billion cars come online and are competing with us for gas? Will it seem so frivolous then, if you’re living in a place that condemns you to driving everywhere for everything? And think about it for a moment from the viewpoint of the merchant... you might even be one of those merchants, or work for one of them. Would you rather be in a place where the only way to get to your establishment is to drive, or would you rather have a lot of walk-up and bike-up customers, too? Which sort of merchant is going to prosper long into an uncertain future... one whose customers can only arrive by driving, or one whose customers have a choice of ways to arrive and shop? Which sort of merchant would you rather be... or rather work for?

   Beyond the benefits of working or shopping in a place you can walk to, how about the benefits of walking itself? When I moved to South Beach from an almost completely unwalkable place in 2003, I lost 60 pounds. Before moving, I was a tired old man at 43 years old. Today, the characteristics most often noted about me are my passion and energy. This would not have been possible without moving to a walkable place... I might even have been dead by now, as heart disease runs heavy in my family... an uncle died of a heart attack at 37, for example. Health statistics abound as to the benefits of living and working in walkable places, and the treacherous risks of places that are not walkable. See here and here and here and here and here and here and here... and so many more... just Google... you can read all day... but don’t: get out and walk!

two women visiting, one standing on a porch and the other leaning against a picket fence in the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   But health benefits are not the only benefits. Properly-designed walkable places actually bring people back together again as neighbors. See the two women visiting here? I took the photo at a New Urbanist neighborhood known as the Waters, then waited until they had finished visiting and asked the lady on the porch for her permission to use the image. She agreed. I asked “is the other lady a friend of yours?” She said “No, I was just meeting her for the first time just then.” This was possible because the front edge of the porch was a certain distance above the inner edge of the sidewalk, and a corresponding distance away from the sidewalk. And the frontage fence contributed by making them both feel more comfortable. Had the geometry not been right, the lady on the porch would have never been sitting on the porch when her future friend walked by... so she would not have met her that day. But the geometry was right, so she met her. And conversations lead to relationships, which lead to people acting like neighbors again. And as we should know, there are few things better in difficult and uncertain times than a lot of good neighbors.

   So what to do? One answer is obvious. The Congress for the New Urbanism is convening in Denver this year... June 10-13. Don’t come if you’re just looking for a real estate value boost, because we all have a long post-meltdown winter ahead of us. But if you want to gather principles and techniques that will help you, your neighborhood, and your community to sustain yourselves in these times, then there will be no better place to be in mid-June than at the Congress. Sessions will include everything from the foundation principles to the specific techniques and dimensions that create neighbors out of strangers like the two women in the image above. I’ll be there... please join me!


~ Steve Mouzon


Legacy Comments:


Sunday, February 22, 2009 - 06:50 PM

thanks

sounds great to me. i'm an artist/designer in los angeles. FINALLY my reduce reuse recycle is being considered by my clients and i'm able to

work being creatively enviromentally responsible.

i reuse restaurant chairs by painting them

art with found objects etc etc

thank you for great post


Friday, March 6, 2009 - 03:52 PM

Steve Mouzon

You're welcome! And I'm glad that your clients are coming around. I'm guessing that when we come out of the Meltdown, there will be a lot of changed attitudes... for the better.


Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 12:14 PM

Robert Wiebusch

Steve, I enjoyed reading the post and am eagerly awaiting the 'Leytham' neighborhood here in Omaha, Nebraska.  Herb has been working hard over the past few years and it has been great to watch his ideas unfold.  

Sincerely, 

The first Leytham lot reserver (Robert)


Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 05:31 PM

Steve Mouzon

Robert, thanks very much! Herb is one of those people in whom I have great confidence that he will do the right thing. I'm delighted to have consulted with Herb a little bit on Leytham so far, and hope to continue to do so... I have high hopes for Leytham. Thanks for posting!


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