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New Urbanism

John Norquist of CNU w/ video

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On Wednesday, September 30, John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and former mayor of Milwaukee, spoke about new urbanism as part of Houston Tomorrow’s Distinguished Speaker Series. A number of local supporters are in the process of forming a CNU-Houston chapter.

Norquist said that CNU was formed in 1993 in Alexandria, Virginia, and that the name “New Urbanism” was chosen because at the time, the word “urbanism” was stigmatized. “Maybe it’s a little bit of new because it tries to factor in the automobile,” he said, “but mostly it’s old, and it’s trying to revive urbanism that was washed away for a variety of reasons.”

He discussed the history of urbanism in the last century, noting that its decline started with separate-use zoning. “[Zoning] was a gross overreaction” to the problems of the time, he said, calling it the worst idea to come out of the progressive movement. Zoning made it illegal to combine residences and businesses in most cases. On top of that, Norquist said that mortgage companies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac established rules mandating that no more than 20 percent of a residential building could be used for commercial purposes. Buildings that did not meet that requirement were not eligible for mortgages. This destroyed property values in many mixed-use urban areas that had developed naturally and without regulation.

Norquist said that streets serve transportation, social, and economic functions. However, he said that state and federal Departments of Transportation have focused all of their money on the transportation aspect. The goal, he said, was to eliminate congestion. However, he said that congestion itself - with its crowds of people, economic activity, and excitement - is not a problem. “The very goal of American transportation policy has been wrong, not just the wrong actions,” he said. Off-street parking requirements also attempted to relieve congestion but had a horrible effect on urbanism, he said.

Modernist architects further destroyed urbanism. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius designed high-density but disconnected areas, separating the buildings with large streets and setbacks hostile to pedestrians.

Norquist cited the examples of Detroit and Berlin. In 1945, Detroit was at its peak, serving as the main economic engine for winning World War II. Berlin, on the other hand, was 80 percent destroyed by bombings and street battles. Look at the two cities today, he said, and you would never guess that Detroit won the war and Berlin lost. In Germany, Berlin was rebuilt as a dense, pedestrian-friendly city, and the famous Autobahn connected cities but did not go through them. Detroit, in contrast, began building massive freeways straight through the heart of the city, destroying much of its economic activity in the process. Norquist said that the freeways succeeded in reducing urban congestion, and that congestion is now the least of Detroit’s problems.

However, Norquist said that highways are only designed to last about 40 or 50 years, and many of them are approaching that mark. “There’s a great opportunity in the United States right now to change things,” he said. Even Atlanta is starting to build more urban forms, and urbanism has been embraced by some large retailers such as Home Depot. In California, Cisco is retrofitting its headquarters and replacing large swaths of parking lots with urban housing for many of its employees. “With the office parks around Houston, if you want to retrofit sprawl, you can do it,” he told the audience.

Some cities have even torn down existing freeways, including Milwaukee during Norquist’s tenure. San Francisco tore down the Embarcadero after it was badly damaged by an earthquake, and most famously, Seoul, South Korea turned its traffic-choked freeway into a riverside park. Echoing remarks made by Peter Newman, who spoke as a Distinguished Speaker in January, he said that the traffic disappeared seamlessly into the street grid in each of these cities. Norquist also called Vancouver the most successful city in North America, noting that it lacks a single freeway.

CNU is working with a variety of groups to re-legitimize urban streets and boulevards. Fire marshals, among others, have been extremely supportive because street grids increase redundancies and reduce response times. Virginia effectively outlawed cul-de-sacs in favor of grids earlier this year for similar reasons.

In addition to social and economic benefits, urbanism also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and CNU has worked with the US Green Building Council to develop new LEED for Neighborhood Development building standards. The standard awards points for the location of the building, not just its construction qualities. Under the old incentives, some LEED-certified buildings were built in the middle of nowhere and required workers to drive great distances. Under the new standards, which should take effect later this year, companies will be rewarded for urban buildings.

“There’s a whole cascade of benefits [to urbanism],” Norquist concluded. “We understand it’s good for the environment, but it’s also good for living.”

Norquist has also authored a book entitled, The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life.

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