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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Urbanism

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Elizabeth Plater Zyberk, Dean of the School of Architecture of the University of Miami, about the New Urbanist movement and the planning and design it promotes to combat suburban sprawl.


CURWOOD: The suburbs are pretty much the same thing all over America. Individual houses, streets with no sidewalks, stores that are only accessible by car. The burbs are also blamed for sprawl and a sense of isolation and alienation. But the New Urbanist movement says it has the answer to these problems: a return to the traditional style of town and village layout. One of its proponents is architect Elizabeth Plater Zyberk. She's an author of ñSuburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.î She begins by explaining what a street means to her.

ZYBERK: A street is a public space. It's a corridor of movement. A street is faced by buildings that establish its geometry. The buildings' height and their aspect to the street, whether they have doors and windows, and how those allow people to interact between the sidewalk and the interior of the building, all contribute to making the character of that street. The dimensions are very important. Some urban design research in Europe points to an interesting correlation between sidewalk width and cartway width, the paving for the vehicle, which says that the most beloved streets in the world are those which have either the same amount of sidewalk width, or more than, vehicular paving width. If you think about most American streets, we tend to reverse that proportion and have less sidewalk and more blacktop.

CURWOOD: What does that mean? What happens to our communities?

ZYBERK: That means that we put a premium on driving, rather than walking, as a way of getting around. The impact of that is, many communities choked in traffic congestion are looking at buses and rail and trolleys and all sorts of, in a sense, reviving public transit. And if the land use is not organized, and if the walking environment is not pleasant, then you can put all the transit in you want at enormous investment, and still not have people use it. They'd rather sit in the car for hours in traffic.

CURWOOD: Your book talks a lot about New Urbanism. What is New Urbanism? How would you define it?

ZYBERK: The New Urbanism proposes a vision or a picture for building the metropolis, which is different than what we've been doing in recent years, in the following way. Instead of separating uses and incomes and putting great emphasis on automobile mobility, the New Urbanism promotes making walkable neighborhoods, compact mixed-use places of residence, work and recreation, which are pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented. In effect, traditional neighborhoods, rather than suburban subdivisions and shopping centers.

CURWOOD: You have a lot of concepts in this book. One, of course, is green, the necessity of it. But you say that not all green space is created equal. What do you mean?

ZYBERK: Well, you know, the suburban picture of green is a kind of leftover space around the buildings. The lawn around the house. The little patch of landscaping around the walled subdivision. And there are other models, a kind of reverse model, that we look to as New Urbanists, which puts that green very consciously into greens, which buildings face onto -- courtyard gardens. And of course the continuous network of green that's so important at the regional scale -- corridors of green, conservation areas, farmland, which continues on a regional scale and runs between neighborhoods and, you, know, in and out of cities.

CURWOOD: Green space is something that many around the country are trying to save from sprawl that seems to be galloping everywhere. But some of the most famous New Urbanist sites are built on greenfields. I mean, they're basically paving over what had been natural space. Isn't this really a contradiction?

ZYBERK: Well, it might seem like it, and in fact we've heard much criticism in recent years, in which people are saying you shouldn't be building anything new any more. You should just be rebuilding old places. We think of the new communities that we've been building much more positively as examples. If Seaside, for instance, had not been built and the kind of place that garnered so much attention as a new place --

CURWOOD: This is in Florida, you're talking about.

ZYBERK: In Florida, yeah. Seaside, Florida, is one of the first what you would call New Urbanist new communities. If Seaside, for instance, had not been built and the kind of place that garnered so much attention as a new place, one would not have drawn as much attention to rebuilding existing places. In fact, the financial success of a place like Seaside spurred many people to think of rebuilding, infilling and so on, because they could see in a new place that, yes, people really did appreciate living in this manner. And therefore, those places which already existed that could be rebuilt in that manner were worth working on.

CURWOOD: Well, tell me, from your own experience, what's your favorite town or city in this country, and why?

ZYBERK: You know, almost any American city has its share of wonderful neighborhoods and districts. Some of them historic, some of them new, whether it's the East Side of Manhattan or Back Bay in Boston, Charleston, South Carolina, Miami Beach, there are so many wonderful places. What's true of all of them, however, I think most places that almost anyone would say is their favorite urban place, is they are eminently walkable. They reward the walker, not only with many destinations within short distance, but also wonderful architecture, attention paid to the detail of the street space, as well as the buildings.

CURWOOD: Elizabeth Plater Zyberk is one of the principals of a firm that has designed more than 200 new neighborhood and community revitalization plans, and is Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami. She is one of the authors of ñSuburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.î Thank you.

ZYBERK: Thank you.



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