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Urbanism Scales Down for Small Towns

Gary Toth
Apr 16, 2012
Dec 20, 2017
The Village of Cheshire's master plan was developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company

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.

Residential development at the Bland Street Station in Charlotte’s South End / Photo: Gary Toth

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. BiltmorePark 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 Antiquityand 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.

Antiquity at Cornelius / Photo: Gary Toth

Click here to download the full report.

Gary Toth
Gary Toth
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