I had the unique opportunity to participate in a “Smart Growth” bus tour of communities in North Carolina, organized last year by the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute and the Local Government Commission. We visited a variety of neighborhoods, from low-density to high, pre-car to newly developed, to learn how livable and sustainable principles can help a wide range of communities to adapt to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
Important lessons can be learned from each of the communities we visited. None were perfect, but as Joel Garreau pointed out in Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, now-revered places like Venice and London were pieced together over centuries; flaws were frequently pointed out by critics, and fixed over time. Flaws in these places will be addressed over time as well. What is critical about each location is that they are testing out new ideas of what a sustainable future could look like. The neighborhoods that had the best sense of place were those that were created over a hundred years, and they serve as great models for how to take Traditional Neighborhood Development, Form Based Codes and other contemporary planning strategies to the next level.
My observations from the experience are below. You can click here to download my full report on the trip, which includes more detailed information on each of the communities that we visited across the state: Charlotte, Belmont, Kannapolis, Cornelius, Davidson, Black Mountain, and Asheville.
1.) Urbanism can be scaled to fit all types of development, from big city to rural: One of the major misconceptions holding back the acceptance of livability and sustainability policies across a broad spectrum of American communities is that urbanism is anti-suburb, and holds no answers for rural areas. The variety of communities seen on the North Carolina Smart Growth Tour proves otherwise. Urbanism has improved livability in communities ranging from small towns like Black Mountain; to once-rural villages like Cornelius, Belmont, and Kannapolis that are struggling to avoid losing their identity as they are being absorbed by modern auto-oriented development; all the way up to larger cities like Asheville and Charlotte that are looking to repair damage inflicted by post-WWII retrofits implemented to make way for cars.
True, urbanism reaches is fullest value at higher densities. But the social benefits of having a small center where one can walk to eat breakfast, grab a quart of milk, or hang out and chat with others around a cup of coffee can be achieved even in application of urbanism principles in small – and new – rural villages. While residents of places like Black Mountain and Cornelius will probably not be able to ditch their cars entirely, these places have the potential to reduce the daily auto trip load from the average of 12-14 daily trips per household. While this may not seem significant, reducing daily trips from 14 to 12 represents a 14% decrease – a significant contraction.
The clustering around a center offered by Cornelius and Black Mountain also dramatically increases the feasibility of a transit provider offering service. Typical suburban communities are too spread out to make transit stops efficient. Even a town as small as Black Mountain creates a focal point for passengers waiting for transit service to hang out, grab a cup of coffee, and perhaps even do some business.
More importantly, creation of urbanist developments in these traditional rural areas creates a sense of place, a sense of community, and better livability.
2.) Placemaking, New Urbanism, and Smart Growth can help protect rural communities from losing their identity to suburbanism. Communities such as Davidson, Cornelius, Belmont and Kannapolis have recognized that the biggest threat to their rural landscapes is NOT livability and New Urbanism; it is business-as-usual suburban sprawl. The latter, by leading to formula-driven housing, commercial and office developments that look the same whether in New Mexico, New Jersey, or North Carolina, erodes the sense of community that preceded its arrival. Beginning in 1996, Belmont, Davidson and Cornelius adopted form based codes to help stem the tide of suburbanism emanating out from Charlotte as its metropolitan area boomed.
3.) The production line efficiency of stamping out off-the-rack buildings limits the value of New Urbanism. The Town of Belmont’s clustering of new development into small pods with connected, properly-sized streets and alleys is an important step in the right direction. However, when compared to the Antiquity at Cornelius development, where a series of building styles varies from building to building, Belmont pales. While Cornelius does not exhibit an infinite variety of architectural styles from house to house, even a mild variety in housing types here makes a dramatic difference in the sense of place. It chips away at the “Disney-esque” feeling that New Urbanism is sometimes accused of creating.
4.) Pods of New Urbanist residential development need to be within walking distance of activity centers. Not to pick on Belmont, but their dozen or so New Urbanist pods are isolated and are a mile or two from commercial activity. Belmont does have a quaint, mixed-use Main Street, but shopping options are limited and in tough competition with auto-oriented strip development located along State Route 74, with a particular concentration at the interchange with Interstate 85. Compare this to Antiquity at Cornelius, where a small town center is being built right in the midst of new residential neighborhoods; or Davidson, which has recognized the importance of its historic downtown, surrounded by hundreds of residential units adjacent to and within easy walking distance of downtown. Antiquity, Davidson and even Black Mountain offer the potential to eliminate at least one round trip a day by car. Isolated pods do not.
5.) Livable street design is equally important in all residential places, regardless of population density. Complete streets create the engineering foundation for a great street; Placemaking completes the job. On destination streets, multi-modal activity is fostered by triangulating multiple destinations within easy walking distance. Buildings are located to create the “walls” of an outdoor living room, and ground floor uses engage people on the street. This is as true in the two-story buildings in downtown Belmont as it is with the multi-story buildings on Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte. The street cross sections tame traffic and provide comfortable settings for activity; the speed of cars does not intimidate. A street does not need to have been created 100 years ago to establish the destination street feel, as the developers of Biltmore Park Town Square have proven.
6.) Malls don’t have to be totally auto-dependent, surrounded by seas of parking. Biltmore Park Town Square in Asheville proves that mall can move back towards a more sustainable form, centered on a Main Street and with office and residential mixed in.
7.) New development may need to age gracefully like a fine wine; Placemaking layered on top of modern planning can accelerate the creation of attractive patinas. New Urbanist principles such as Smart Codes, Form Based Codes, Complete Streets, and Mixed-Use Destinations create the bones for sustainable communities. However, while newly-created developments like Antiquity and Biltmore Square, there is some of that “Disney-esque” feel mentioned above. Older downtowns in Asheville and Davidson, by contrast, felt more natural and comfortable, the result of gradual informal Placemaking over the years.