08 January 2005

8/1/05. From New Regionalism to New Urbanism: Changing the Paradigm of Growth

Program: New Mobility Agenda

This article by Peter Calthorpe is the base of a presentation he is to make to "a Smart Growth" conference to take place in Riverside CA on 21 January. We propose this for consideration by and comment to our New Moblity community, with the thought that creative interaction between ourselves and the New Urbanism group and proponents might yield some useful results at both ends.

From New Regionalism to New Urbanism: Changing the Paradigm of Growth

- By Peter Calthorpe

For many Americas the everyday environment of freeways, subdivisions, malls, and office parks is a given—an inescapable reality that covertly structures their time, associations, and opportunities. This landscape is so familiar that it is practically unseen and often goes unquestioned. But when questioned, it is framed as the inevitable consequence of market forces and cultural desires—a destiny in which public policy plays merely a supporting role. For many it is an unassailable expression of the American Dream.

But in reality this landscape is not just the product of free market forces, but also of a distinct planning paradigm supported by highly coordinated policies. The planning paradigm is a collage of low density, single-use areas connected by a road network dedicated to the car – otherwise known as sprawl. The policies that support this paradigm are numerous to many obscure: state and federal road standards and funding that favor autos over transit or pedestrians; secondary market financing and mortgage tax deductions that bias our housing types; a fiscal structure in suburban towns and counties that directs land use away from denser housing to tax-rich commercial development; and a set of underwriting standards within most banks that has no place for mixed-use developments. It adds up to a self-reinforcing system of public policies and institutional bias that is tenacious and entrenched.

This system delivers a standardized product, one that varies little across the country. It is driven not by a conspiracy or even ideology, but ossification -- old habits institutionalized and self-reinforcing. As conditions shift with new demographics, new technologies, and new environmental challenges, this old pattern inhibits innovation and much needed change.

But cracks are appearing in this system. Traffic congestion, lack of affordable housing, environmental pollution, loss of open space, and fractured communities are now normative in most metropolitan areas. Like its segregated land uses, sprawl’s problems are treated in isolation by specialists with single purpose policies. Because of this ‘stove pipe’ approach, the problems fester and are rarely treated in a systemic manner. And our assumptions about the inevitability of this land use pattern are so powerful that we think the solutions to these problems are just more of the same: more highways to cure congestion, more subdivisions to provide affordable housing, and lower density development to stave off pollution, crime, and loss of community.

Sprawl’s roots are thought to be an organic expression of our culture, but much in our culture has changed and the old paradigm has not kept up. New planning models are emerging—alternates that can satisfy market needs with less environmental impact, less cost, less congestion, and perhaps stronger communities.

These new models must be conceived at both the regional and local level – large scale strategic planning connected to a new sense of urban design. They will involve new codes, new technical standards, new policies, new financing mechanisms, and new land use patterns. Guiding these sifts in policy, standards, and local planning will be the emerging practice of regional design.

A region is unconsciously “designed” by its highway structure, road standards, finance systems, tax structure, environmental regulations, and zoning types. Local planning is largely at the mercy of these forces. Towns are reduced to determining the quantity of development, more than its type or overall impact. Smaller jurisdictions and counties can downzone residential, over-zone tax producing commercial, and sift troublesome uses to other parts of the region, but can do little more. They do not and for the most part cannot overhaul the type of development that can be financed, the nature of the infrastructure that passes through their area, or the economic context that defines the range of choices they have in land use. All of that is in the domain of regional design, state programs, and federal policy.

Regional planning and innovative forms of urbanism are the keys to opening up new directions in development. And they must happen simultaneously. A progressive regional plan without new forms of development at the local level will be an empty set of goals, while land use change at the local level without regional coordination will be anecdotal. Luckily we have several good examples of this interdependent process and important emerging results.

Emerging regionalism

We are in the embryonic stage of regionalism, testing different approaches, ideas, and implementation strategies. In the past decade a range of regional strategies and design structures has evolved in several states across the country. One lesson is already clear from these early trials: there is no one solution or process. In each place differences in history, scale, ecology, geography, economics, and politics produce many forms of regionalism.

In all U.S. metropolitan areas, many regional institutions are already coordinating critical infrastructure, investments, and policy—but in a piecemeal fashion. Regional transportation investments are already controlled by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) as part of the process of allocating state and federal money. But these organizations have no control over the land-use patterns that drive the transportation demands – a key disconnect. Other single-purpose regional entities have evolved to deal with unique regional assets. A good example is the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which controls development along and in the Bay. But land use typically remains the singular domain of local jurisdictions and is at the heart of the greatest controversy surrounding regionalism.

Many think that effective regional design implies a top down approach. But regionalism does not imply that each town give up land-use control. It does imply that a larger strategic plan be developed by all involved; local jurisdictions, environmentalists, business interests, and developers to name a few stakeholders. Board policies, goals, and infrastructure criteria can be established by MPOs or regional civic and business groups in cooperation with local governments. The region can establish goals and policies in several key areas: preservation of open space systems, efficiency of infrastructure, location of major job centers, transportation investments, and the fair distribution of affordable housing. Using these parameters, local governments can still design a unique plan that defines all the elements of its community: housing, circulation, open space, land use, urban design, and so on.

In fact, without such regional policies, many local initiatives can be frustrated. For example without regional open space designations individual towns may be unable to preserve the adjacent open space systems they want. And clearly the major transportation improvements that cities need can only be coordinated at the regional level. Furthermore regional policies to support reinvestment in lower income communities may encourage redevelopment where local jurisdictions are unable to sift direction. The land-use decisions that compliment such fundamental strategies must be adopted at the local level while they are coordinated at the regional level . No regional plan will succeed without local participation and buy in.

Oregon and Washington provide two alternate approaches to such regional participation in land-use decisions. In Oregon a more top-down approach was implied in the creation of a regional government with district elections for local representation. This governing body has primary responsibility for the regional “Framework Plan” that sets overall growth, infrastructure, and land-use policies, as well as the placement of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).

Contrary to popular belief, the UGB in Oregon was not created to limit growth or stop sprawl but to protect farmlands from destabilizing land speculation. The 1972 legislation called for a boundary that would contain a twenty-year supply of developable land and for periodic line adjustments to ensure such capacity. Were it not for a 1992 regional visioning process, called Metrovision 2040, the elastic UGB would have had little effect on outward growth. Metrovision 2040 organizers asked if the region should “grow up” or “grow out” and they engaged considerable community input. Given the choices and the trade-offs, the plan to “grow up” with more compact forms of development was selected by a wide margin.

The significant aspect of Oregon’s growth management law is not that a top-down regional bureaucracy dictates land use to local governments, but that the area must collectively analyze the impacts of future growth at a regional scale and come to a comprehensive decision as to what direction to take. When allowed to see clearly the impacts of more sprawl on their quality of life, the cost of infrastructure, and the impact to the environment, a majority of citizens opted for a more compact, transit-oriented growth pattern. These are trade-offs and choices people can only make when shown the cumulative impacts of different forms of growth at a regional scale.

In Washington the process started with, rather than resulted in, such a regional visioning effort. Called 2020 Vision, it produced a plan that configured the region with a hierarchy of centers and a complex set of growth boundaries that respected the needs and aspirations of individual communities. The plan was so successful that it led to state legislation for growth management. Under Washington’s Growth Management Act, the local governments remain the proactive force in land-use decisions, with the regional entity acting primarily as a board of appeals. Local decisions can be challenged for either unreasonably breaching the UGB or undermining the general allocation of jobs and housing within each community. In other words, environmentalists have recourse if a district begins to sprawl beyond its growth boundary, and developers have recourse if NIMBYs constrain appropriate levels of development within the boundaries.

Maryland’s approach is different. It sets economic efficiency standards for public investments such as highway, sewer, water, housing, and economic development assistance. Rather than prescribe the location and pattern of development, the state’s new “Neighborhood Conservation and Smart Growth Initiative” limits its investments in infrastructure to “priority funding areas.” The concept is not to control the market or constrain private property rights but merely to spend public dollars cost-effectively. Significantly, the county governments, not the state, designate these areas. The areas, however, must meet several standards, such as a minimum density and coherent infrastructure plans, along with a demonstrated need for growth. Areas outside the priority areas can be developed but at the local government’s or property owner’s expense. This is a fair approach; the state seeks fiscal efficiency and the private sector develops areas appropriate to the market. State subsidized land use is over.

Maryland has several other programs to protect open space and encourage job growth in existing centers. Its Rural Legacy Program uses sales tax dollars and bonds to purchase conservation easements for critical open space and farmlands. This program acknowledges that some lands would not be protected by the priority area designation alone. The Job Creation Tax Credit program provides tax benefits to employers who create jobs in the priority areas and the Live Near Your Work program offers home-buying assistance to areas in which the employers are willing to provide matching assistance. The goal is to create more compact, efficiently served communities while preserving the state’s open space and farmlands. These means form a sophisticated mix of incentives and limits that support reinvestment in the places that need it the most and avoid inefficient new infrastructure.

In Salt Lake City, a new initiative lead by a civic group, Envision Utah, created alternative growth scenarios for their fast-growing area. For the projected one million-population growth they span from a compact transit-oriented alternate of 112 square miles of new development to a sprawling 439 in more standard forms. The infrastructure cost difference between the extremes was extraordinary, close to an additional $30,000 per new home. In addition the low-density option didn’t meet the market demand for multifamily housing or first-time homebuyers. This low-density option reflected a growing trend in the region’s smaller suburban towns toward exclusionary zoning that allocated residential land primarily for large lot single-family homes.

People tend to oppose denser development on a project-by-project basis, but when shown the cumulative loss of open space, affordable housing, and the additional tax burden at the regional scale, their response can be quite different. A mail-back survey included with a newspaper insert describing the Envision Utah alternatives showed that only 4% of the 18,000 respondents preferred the low-density growth alternate, while over 66% voted for the more compact alternatives. While many of these voters may have opposed higher density development in their neighborhoods the regional alternates process provided them a different perspective, one that has the power to reframe the issue and allow new preferences.

In addition the respondents voted in similar proportions for more walkable forms of development with increased transit investments. The most-preferred alternate matched the market demand for multifamily and small home opportunities while reducing the average lot size of a single-family home by less than 20%. This option also placed three fifths of the new residents within a half a mile of rail transit stations and supported mixed-use neighborhoods that made walking convenient in 70% of the new development.

Since these alternates where analyzed and public preferences polled, the state legislators passed and the governor has signed the Quality Growth Act. Like the land management approach in Maryland, this legislation puts into place a commission to designate “quality growth” areas that will become the focus of new development and redevelopment. The state and federal government will make these areas priorities for new infrastructure and services. Other areas, although not specifically outside of a UGB, will have to pay their own development costs.

In addition individual communities are following the regional plan on a volunteer basis. South Jordon, a town dominated by large lot single family homes approved a progressive mixed use plan for 10,000 new homes in an area to be served by an extension of the light rail line – at average densities twice that of their existing community. In addition, Kennecott Copper, the largest property holder in the region with over 90,000 acres, is developing a plan based on the concepts of Transit Oriented Development. And a recent study across multiple jurisdictions to add a freeway on the west side of the valley included yet another transit line along with appropriate land uses.

The most important aspect of each of these plans is the recognition that a definitive regional plan is a necessary step to a healthy future and that community participation is key to its success. When given clear information and a picture of the aggregate impacts of piecemeal growth, most citizens opt for very progressive policies. Seeing the growth in terms of its total impacts rather than one project at a time is a critical shift in perspective. Regional questions get different answers than local questions.

The Urban Network

Within these regional design efforts lies the need for a new model of mobility, a new vision of streets, arterials and expressways that compliments the emerging land-use patterns. The movements of New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and Transit-Oriented Development have each defined these new more compact and walkable land use forms. But too often the regional plans that call for New Urbanism and Smart Growth are forced to grow within a transportation network designed for sprawl. Our assumed transportation network is still a suburban grid of arterials punctuated with freeways.

A new circulation system to match the emerging mixed-use development patterns must be developed. One that accommodates mass transit as well as the car and that reinforces, rather than isolates, walkable places. Bringing daily destinations closer to home is a fundamental aspect of urbanism, but is not the complete solution to our access needs. Even if we double the percent of walkable trips in a neighborhood and triple transit ridership, there still will be growth in auto trips, not to mention an explosion of truck miles. We need a circulation system that accommodates all modes efficiently while it supports differing densities of urbanism throughout the region.

The old paradigm is simple [ill. 1]: a grid of arterials spaced at one-mile increments with major retail centers located at the intersections and strip commercial buildings lining its inhospitable but very visible edges. Overlaying the grid in rings and radials is the freeway system. The intersection of the grid and freeway becomes fertile ground for malls and office parks. This formal system is rational, coherent, and true to itself, even if increasingly dysfunctional. Its sprawling land-use patterns matches the road network in a way that New Urbanism, when dropped into this framework, cannot.

Our firm developed the concept of an Urban Network (ill. 2) for Chicago Metropolis 2020, a private regional planning effort of the historic Commercial Club for the greater Chicago area. The Urban Network proposes three types of major roads to replace the standard arterial grid: Transit Boulevards, Avenues, and Connectors. The Transit Boulevards combine through auto trips with transit right-of-ways, the Avenues lead to local commercial destinations, and the Connectors provide circulation between neighborhoods.

The Transit Boulevards are at the heart of this network. They are multi-functional throughways designed to match the mixed-use urban development that they support. Like traditional boulevards, they would have a central area for through traffic and transit, along with small-scale access roads on the sides to support local activities and a pedestrian scaled environment. This configuration is a place where cafés, small businesses, apartments, transit, pedestrians, and through traffic mingle in a simple and time-tested hierarchy.

These Transit Boulevards [ill. 3] are lined with higher density development and run to and through town centers. The key is a dedicated lane for the transit so that it can run at efficient speeds and the small frontage road that supports the adjacent buildings and life of the sidewalk. This is in contrast to the typical arterial that rarely provides space for transit or an edge treatment that encourages little other that strip commercial or soundwalls.

The transit system running along the Boulevards and through the towns could be light rail, streetcars, or bus rapid transit (BRT). When Light Rail is not possible, the capital and operational costs of BRT are affordable and make it financially viable for widespread use. New, super-efficient natural gas engines and advanced bus design would make such buses reasonable companions to the urban environment of the Boulevard.

Avenues would intersect the Boulevards at one-mile centers. These Avenues would allow more frequent intersections, just as our existing suburban system does. However, at major intersections they can support a Village Center –a mixed-use transformation of the typical grocery store anchored shopping center into a walkable community focus. Between such centers, Avenues would have a parkway treatment and can be lined by alley-loaded, large lot homes—as in the historic neighborhoods of many American cities.

Finally, a system of Connector streets forms a finer grid of approximately one-quarter-mile spacing, providing direct access to local Village and Town centers. These ‘connector streets’ replace the standard ‘collector street‘, a local street with so much traffic that they are lined with sound-walls and only connect to arterials. In contrast the Connector streets are frequent enough to disperse the traffic so as to create livable environments along them. Because this street type allows direct access to village and town centers, it also functions to relieve the Avenues of local trips, allowing fewer lanes .

In a plan for the City of Merced the old circulation patterns were compared to the Urban Network from a traffic performance point of view [ill 4,5]. The Urban Network held the quantities of the various land uses constant while substituting Avenues at one-mile centers and a central Transit Boulevard for the standard Arterials, and multiple continuous Connectors instead of Collectors. The analysis showed a considerable drop in the volumes on the primary roads as local trips shifted to the connectors; while the arterials system needed 75% four lane and 25% six lane facilities the Urban Network needed no six-lane roads. More surprising was that in the standard system over 67% of the Collectors carried over 5,000 cars a day (more that one would wish to live next too) while the more frequent Connectors dispersed the traffic so that only 5% had that quantity.

In the old hierarchy of functional types, streets serve single functions. The new street types combine uses, capacities, and scales. For example the Transit Boulevards combine the capacity of a major arterial with the intimacy of local frontage roads and the pedestrian orientation that comes with its transit system. The Avenues are multi-lane roads that transition into a “couplet” of main streets at the village centers. Streets, like land-use, can no longer be single purpose and they must change as they move through differing urban environments.

This new circulation system is combined with the new mixed-use land use patterns of New Urbanism and Smart Growth. Walkable town and village centers are placed at the crossroads of Transit Boulevards and Avenues. Residential neighborhoods are directly accessible to these centers through local connector streets as well as the Avenues.

At such commercial centers, the Boulevard and Avenues would split into two one-way streets set a block apart, creating an urban grid of pedestrian scaled streets. No street in such a town would contain more than three travel lanes (typically two), allowing pedestrian continuity without diverting auto capacity. In addition, this one-way system eliminates left turn delays, actually decreasing travel time for cars.

Each mixed-use place has an appropriate location, scale, and type of access. The larger town center is accessible to the Boulevard’s plentiful through traffic and its high-capacity transit line. It mixes major employment with regional retail, major civic destinations, and high-density housing— essentially a suburban ‘Edge City’ given urban and walkable configurations. Village centers contain what the International Council of Shopping Centers calls “neighborhood serving retail,” typically anchored by a grocery store. They mix shops, a bit of office space, medium density housing, and local civic uses. It typically takes four to six neighborhoods, each with a one-quarter-mile walking radius, to support a village center. The villages are directly accessible by foot, bus, car, or bike from surrounding neighborhoods along connector roads, while their couplet streets allow the auto traffic needed to support their retail.

An example of such a village center is in San Elijo, located about forty miles north of San Diego (ill 6,7). This site, originally planned around a standard intersection of two arterials, was redesigned to place a village green at the center of four one-way streets. In one quadrant, the grocery store anchors the primary retail; in others housing and civic buildings line the streets. Two main streets lead up to the green, and mixed-use buildings surround it. In two of the quadrants, a school and community park complete the center. This village center is now largely built and has been both a commercial and community success. Although the traffic engineers were skeptical at first a detailed analysis proved the concept and a visionary developer marshaled the concept through implementation.

In contrast, a town center contains much more retail along with higher density housing, major office development, and a more extensive street system. Issaquah Highlands, thirty miles east of Seattle, is an example (ill. 8,9). This center is placed at the intersection of a major new arterial (projected to carry about 50,000 vehicles per day to a new freeway interchange) and the entry to a new community with about 4,300 units of housing. Some 500 more units are planned in the town center, along with 900,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. In addition the Microsoft Corporation has acquired part of the town center for a major office campus of approximately two million square feet.

Splitting the arterials into one-way couplets allowed an urban grid to organize the site and provided for a pedestrian-scaled environment even with these high traffic volumes. It effectively unified what would have been an isolated office park next to a shopping center. The standard arterial had a primary intersection with a 166-foot pedestrian crossing, while the couplets had two streets, one forty feet wide and the other just twenty-eight feet wide. In addition, the traffic engineers found that the auto travel time through the center was actually reduced by 11% compared to time through conventional intersections. In this case both the developer and the local city of Issaqua wanted a walkable, mixed use town center and pressed the state Highway Department to allow the innovate road configuration. The project is now under construction and the primary road network is complete.

Another example of a large-scale application of the Urban Network is the master plan for the 20,000-acre St. Andrews expansion area north of Perth, Australia. In this case an enlightened metropolitan government seeking a transit oriented community to anchor the northern quadrant of the region worked closely with a developer that shared this vision. The region had put in place urban design standards to insure mixed use development, walkablity, and a rigorous jobs/housing balance. This new town plan for 150,000 people and over 50,000 jobs shows a hierarchy of neighborhoods, villages, and two town centers set into an Urban Network with open space systems preserving the coast and weaving through the community (ill. 10). In this example, the spacing and configuration of the Urban Network conforms to environmental constraints and existing development.

The Urban Network also has a role to play in redeveloping areas. In such areas, existing suburban arterials can be converted into Transit Boulevards and lined with mixed-use development. In fact, the new regional plan for the Southern California Association of Governments envisions many of the major streets in the old arterial grid of Los Angeles converting to Transit Boulevards with a compliment of higher density development along the corridors. Wiltshire Boulevard is the model for its highest density expression. Ironically, many of these arterials were once home to streetcars prior to WWII.

Various cities are simultaneously up zoning areas along the new transit boulevards and at light rail stations. Malibu, Pasadena and other smaller communities are planning for and building excellent TODs. These dramatic changes come from the political awareness that more of the same sprawl will not address the real challenges that the regional confronts and are partly the result of new market forces calling for redevelopment, affordable housing, and transportation alternates. In this case the preconceptions of sprawl are being overturned by a new paradigm of growth and a new set of investments, policies, and demographics. Los Angles was a test of the auto-oriented metropolis and it will be the test of its transformation.


It is short-sighted to think that significant changes in land-use and regional structure can be realized without fundamentally reordering our transportation system. Only an integrated network of urban places and multi-use street systems can support the change needed for the next century of growth. The integration of these strategies forms a new paradigm of development—one that starts with new regional visions, reorders the policies and standards that underlie our infrastructure, and redirects the form of our neighborhoods and towns. It is an intentional and precisely designed system, just like the one it will replace.

There is no such thing as laisser-fare development. All development is planned, regulated, and subsidized. Consumer preference is shaped by history, opportunity, government policy, and expectations as much as by lifestyle needs or wants. The question before us is not planning vs. market forces but different visions of community development and the physical structure and policies that underlie these visions.


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