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More on New Urbanism and redevelopment

Mesa, AZ

Mesa, AZ

It's apparently still a recurring theme that New Urbanism is essentially about greenfield and resort projects. Rob Steuteville wrote this piece to debunk recent comments while talking about some projects in mid-size cities and I also wrote recently about the impact of New Urbanist planning on an older community in Bluffton, SC. 

Today's example to add to the list: Mesa, AZ. Opticos Design's blog recently mentioned new construction in Mesa's downtown, where the firm authored a form-based code in 2012. Mesa is a first-ring suburb of Phoenix, and by no means a greenfield community or a resort area. Key quote:

Encore on First, an 81-unit transit-oriented rental community for independent seniors, is downtown Mesa’s first private sector investment in nearly 30 years. It is within walking distance of three museums, the Mesa Arts Center, and a library, and utilizes sustainable resources, including a 60 KW rooftop solar plant tied into the city’s power grid, and features high-efficiency windows, energy-saving construction, and Energy Star appliances. The project recently won a local award for best new multifamily development.

It's yet another great example of how form-based codes can be an economic development tool. I spoke about this notion with this video back in 2009:

But let's get back to the notion that New Urbanism doesn't have much to say about big cities or infill/redevelopment.

Look - here's the inside baseball for journalists or critics of New Urbanism, just so you understand: professionals can only do work in places that hire them to do work. I know, it sounds very deep and complicated, doesn't it?

The reality is that even the most prominent New Urbanist firms have only occasionally been hired to do infill work in some of the bigger cities in the country. A few notable exceptions are out there, but in big cities the vast majority of work goes to large, well-established and politically connected design firms. Many of those have adopted New Urbanist ideas, but do not consider themselves New Urbanists. 

In the meantime, the many firms that started in the 1980's through the 2000's to focus exclusively on New Urbanist work have been slogging it out doing work wherever good clients exist. That's been much, much more common with developers of new places and progressive public sector clients in smaller cities. That's just the nature of the beast. Guess what the result is? A lot of work for new towns, greenfield projects and small and mid-size cities that are off the radar of architecture critics in New York and Chicago.

The work has been in places, well, a lot like Mesa and Blue Springs.

So, to criticize a group of people for work that they haven't been able to get? Hmm - let's think that through. Look, if New Urbanist firms get hired to do big city work and it fails - by all means, open the floodgates of criticism. It will be deserved. Most practitioners (in my experience) welcome the critique and are always looking for ways to do better.

But it's hard to dig on someone who hasn't had a bite at the apple yet. There are signs that this is changing, and I fully expect more New Urbanists to be working under the watchful eyes of big-city critics. The recession has taken a terrible toll on design firms of all kinds, but the demand for walkable cities remains on the upswing. Check in again in five years, and let's see what the story is then.

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