Monday, December 5, 2011

A Journey to New Urbanism

I expect that new urbanism enthusiasts came to their convictions by many different routes.  Mine is probably no more unusual than many others.  However, to give the readers a sense of my thinking as these blog posts continue, I’ll share three key points in my history.

First, I had the good luck to be young and impressionable when Bill James appeared on the baseball scene.  Unless one counts the retro downtown ballparks like Camden Yards or AT&T Park, Bill James and baseball have nothing to do with land use.  However, Bill James opened the door to a revolution that completed changed how many of my generation viewed baseball statistics.  Raised on the belief that batting average and runs-batted-in were crucially important, we were educated that on-base percentage and value over replacement player (VORP) provided more meaningful information.  The insights offered by James changed the way we viewed baseball.  More importantly, his work provided the life lesson that conventional wisdom can be wrong and that we should be open to those who offer new ways of viewing reality.  That mindset made me more open to new urbanism.

Second, during the summer of 1989, my wife and I took an east coast vacation.  Our itinerary included Historic Williamsburg.  My wife booked a third-floor room in the historic area.  In the morning, we had only to walk down two flights of stairs to begin enjoying the street life.  We didn’t touch our car for the entire stay.  I found it marvelous to leave my car keys on the dresser and not to worry about traffic.  I remember thinking what a shame it was that we couldn’t live that way anymore.  Obviously, Bill James hadn’t yet worked his full magic on my mental processes.

At the same time, I was working on the conceptual planning for a large golf/residential community in Oregon.  Shortly after my return from Williamsburg, I attended a meeting with the architects/planners who were developing the site layout.  The young architect who was doing much of the work presented a plan in which an entry road was lined by three- and four-stories buildings, with retail on the first floor and condos, apartments, and lodging units above.  It was just like Williamsburg!  It was possible to build new communities in which one could live in the way that I’d enjoyed on my vacation!  It was a moment of insight that has always remained with me.

Third, over the following years, I gradually learned more about new urbanism.  Some of the lessons came easily, others with less alacrity.  One more major insight came in 2007 during a visit to Venice, Italy.  One evening, I dined in a trattoria on the Piazza San Toma.  (Best gnocchi I’ve ever had.)  As I ate, an elderly gentleman entered.  He was perhaps in his late 70s, tall and fit.  His clothes showed wear, but were in good repair and nicely pressed.   He carried a sparklingly clean pottery bowl.

My Italian was limited, but I could discern that he wanted a double order of a favorite pasta to take it back to his apartment to share with his wife, who was physically unable to come to the trattoria.   The proprietor of the trattoria knew the gentleman and greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm.   Several friends who were dining in a rear room were advised of his presence.  They came forward to sit with him as he awaited his order.  The conversation, although far beyond my ability to understand, was voluble and good-natured.  Even the son of the proprietor, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere on the warm spring evening, talked familiarly with the gentleman and smiled for the first time all evening.

I respect the job that senior living facilities do in allowing senior citizens to end their days in dignity, but the Venetian gentleman had more connection with life in the twenty minutes while he awaited his pasta than the average resident in a senior living facility has in a week.  And when I ponder how to give similar opportunities to American senior citizens, new urbanism is the best answer.  Since that evening in Venice, I often measure new urbanist proposals against the standard of that Venetian evening.

Those are the key points in how I came to my new urbanist feelings of today, although I’m sure that other lessons will come my way.  Please feel free to share your comments below or to email me. – Dave Alden  (

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