June 3, 2013 Highlights of CNU conference in Salt Lake City
I spent the past several days in Salt Lake City at the Congress for New Urbanism (cnu.org) conference. Some of the highlights of the conference were:
* Andres Duany’s keynote speech. Duany focused on the relationship between environmentalism and New Urbanism. He suggested that the fear of climate change was actually more important in shaping public policy than climate change itself, because this fear may create long-term demoralization (especially, I suspect, among environmentalists – though I’m not sure if Duany was saying this).
In response, Duany said that New Urbanism could stop such demoralization by making environmentally responsible conduct pleasant and desirable. Good urbanism turns the apparent limitation of life without a two-car (or three- or four-car) garage into a virtue. Duany also emphasized that our job as new urbanists is to focus on adapting to climate change rather than prevention. Why? Because in the absence of international action, there’s not all that much that can be done to prevent climate change.
Duany also discussed city design, emphasizing that one problem with the process of public hearings is that issues are sometimes decided at the wrong level. For example, infill development may involve issues of citywide or regionwide importance, yet the interests of one neighborhood are often given overwhelming weight. He also suggested that new building doesn’t need to be multistory; when a neighborhood is being developed, one-story buildings might be the cheapest form of real estate and thus most appropriate. As the neighborhood becomes more popular over time, multistory building might be more practical.
*A panel on form-based codes. The panel responded to concern that such codes had become too complex. Brenda Scheer suggested that codes were too focused on good design rather than good urban fabric. Sandy Sorlien suggested that codes often involved too much nonmandatory explanation and too many photos.
*John Massengale and Victor Dover led a panel on street design. They showed us photos of supposedly “complete” streets (that is, streets with sidewalks and bike lanes, or that had been narrowed to make pedestrian crossing easier) that are still basically ugly and car-oriented. In addition, they showed us car-oriented avenues in Manhattan, reminding us that even pedestrian-friendly places have some very car-dominated streets. Finally, they showed us examples of one-way streets and pedestrian malls (both of which tend to be unpopular among New Urbanists) in walkable towns, showing us that ideas that make little sense in much of America might make sense in the context of a network of small, interconnected streets.
*Sarah Susanka’s plenary address contained one line that spoke to me. She spoke about an “appreciation for space”, comparable to an appreciation for music. I think one reason I don’t fit in with my relatives and friends who have gotten used to sprawl is that I have a highly developed, perhaps overdeveloped, sense of space. My relatives in Atlanta have gotten used to things (such as streets without sidewalks) that horrify me.
*A panel on financing explained the problem of FHA financing. The FHA will insure purely residential mortgages, but will not support mixed-use developments, because it views its mission as primarily support of housing. Until recently, the FHA would only allow 20% retail space in a project; thus, a building with retail on the ground floor had to be at least five stories. It has increased the permissible amount of retail to 35%, so a three-story building with retail on the bottom is fine with them. However, they still will not support a mainstay of new urbanist development- the two-story building with retail on the bottom (which is thus 50% retail, above their 35% quota).
*A panel on local government showed how some local goverments were trying to promote smart growth. Matthew McElroy spoke about El Paso’s steps- a form-based code for city-owned land, and tax incentives for more walkable development.
*Annick Beaudet spoke about Austin’s “complete streets” program. The program focused on adding sidewalks and bicycle lanes – fairly modest steps, but a good start towards retrofitting sprawl. According to Beaudet, as the number of bike lanes rose, the number of bicycle crashes went down.
*On Sunday, I visited some of Salt Lake City’s suburbs and some of its more walkable areas. I saw some good things and bad things. On the negative side, streets were often too wide to be interesting or comfortable for pedestrians, especially downtown where more people normally walk. (However, in some non-downtown neighborhoods, this was less true). The light rail system closes at 7 PM on Sundays – a serious hardship for travelers taking late flights. The bus system closes around 10 pm, and around 7 pm on weekends. On the other hand, there are some nice walkable neighborhoods; as in the south, these areas tend to be dominated by single-family homes, the occasional duplex, and the occasional small apartment complex. There are almost no rowhouses or similar attached dwellings.
On the positive side, I was amazed that a city as small as Salt Lake City would have three light rail lines and a commuter rail line, even if their hours don’t always make sense. I didn’t see a single street without a sidewalk, even in sprawling Sandy. There is lots of undeveloped land near suburban light rail stops; this means that the system doesn’t go where people now live (bad) but it also means that the system has ample room for growth (good) as areas near rail stops get filled in with housing.
My Salt Lake City photos are here.