Developing Stories: What Would Andrés Duany Do?

The town-planning messiah fixes Austin

Andrés Duany
Andrés Duany

Andrés Duany is the New Urbanist guru. So when he was in town recently, I took the opportunity to chat him up over a beer at the Cedar Door about solving Austin's various current urban-design and planning conundrums.

Duany helped found, and for the past quarter-century has passionately advanced, the New Urbanism movement. Together with his wife and collaborator, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Duany has profoundly altered urban planning and development practice. The Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. helped create the Traditional Neighborhood Development Ordinance, an influential model for pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use compact urban growth as an antidote to suburban sprawl; TND design principles strongly influenced Austin's own recently adopted Design Standards and Mixed-Use Ordinance.

Duany first received recognition in 1980 for the neo-traditional community of Seaside, Fla. (described by Time as "the most astounding design achievement of its era"), Since then, Duany and his firm have designed some 300 new towns, regional plans, and community-revitalization projects. The company now focuses on creating urban plans that are carefully integrated into SmartCode design codes and local land-development codes.

Duany gave a public SmartCode talk in Austin at the end of March to help create excitement about Austin's hosting of the 2008 Congress for the New Urbanism conference next April. Afterward, he offered savvy advice about Austin's current development and urban-planning challenges – variations on issues he's seen repeatedly in communities nationwide.

On the Downtown cityscape visible from the Cedar Door, which overlooks the Downtown block where Las Manitas and other small local businesses are being displaced for a Marriott Hotel complex:

"I'm disappointed in what I see here. This city is acting like a beggar, with a beggar mentality. It's acting like it needs the Marriott. There may have been a time when you needed the Marriott, but you don't now. Austin is hot! You don't have to go out on every date! But there's something left over here about an inferiority complex. You should see how New York acts, how L.A. acts – you should see how Paris acts. Austin accepts too many things that others would not.

"Austin should have high self-esteem as a city, but from what I'm seeing, it hasn't yet become ingrained. It's like, 'We're country folk, really; we don't trust that we've arrived.' You need to say instead, 'We're a very desirable city. We no longer will put up with B-grade service from developers. We demand and deserve A-service. Superb service!

"Austin should stop acting like a cheap date – and ask its suitors to dress properly and take her out to a good restaurant."

On whether Austin needs to do a comprehensive citywide urban plan rather than a collage of neighborhood plans:

"You have to get the increment of planning correction. The planner's role is to create a system that allows the smallest possible effective increment to make a decision. Acting at the neighborhood level, a city can design itself.

"Democracy is a series of adjustments. It's normal for planning sentiments to swing back and forth, between a pro-development phase and then a slow-growth or no-development phase. The best thing is to change government often, to keep the oscillations short."

On preventing future neighborhood vs. developer battles, like those with Northcross and Concordia:

"The citizens need design services. You need an ongoing town architect position that inexpensively provides urban-design services to the citizens and the neighborhoods. Citizens petition to qualify for the services of the town architect. The town architect works with them to create counterprojects – counters to the developers' proposals – so the citizens can do something other than say 'no.' The counterproject they create must be the same program, with the same entitlements. And the developer might participate with the town architect. Then you give the counterproposal, as an alternative, to the City Council and let them be the final judge.

"You also need to rewrite code. You need a simple performance code, a people's code. It can't be so advanced that to be implemented it requires a bureaucracy that's nonexistent."

On fixing Austin's Planned Unit Development ordinance:

"The language of law does not resolve it; the language of design resolves it. That's the disease of the PUD ordinance: By not requiring design, it empowers the lawyers. You need to write another ordinance that requires design standards. Get rid of the PUD code. You can't fix it. Write a preferred alternative, an option that's better.

"The PUD can't just be an outline. It has to say what a 'superior' development means. Here's what 'superior' should mean: connective, compact, complete, comfortable, convivial, conservant. Connective means properly related. Compact means arranged in as small a place as possible. Complete means lacking none of the parts. Comfortable means providing ease and enjoyment. Convivial means a diversity of housing types. Conservant means preserving natural resources."

On inner-city circulator rail:

"You don't have the fabric yet for it to be successful. Austin doesn't have enough walkable stuff. Look at the history of what's happened in lots of other cities – Miami is a good example, a famous example; look at what happened when they built the Metrorail in '78. Only now is the urban pattern coming in to support it. Nobody used it; everyone made fun of it.

"Building transit first gives transit a bad name. You have to build the urban pattern first, achieve the density. Then do your transit next.

"The good thing about a bus is you can remove it if it gets embarrassing. You need to make a rail reservation in the city infrastructure now, but don't build it yet. You'll know when you need it; it will be so evident. There has to be a pain factor."

On sustainable cities and global warming:

"I think it's too early for real sacrifice. The people that are really going to walk, not drive, are still under 20 years old. They're the first generation that's been brainwashed on the environment since kindergarten. So start planning for them, but we're not quite there yet. The real environmentalists will be buying real estate in about another five years – they're the ones who will do with less for the sake of doing the right thing."

On integrating the Austin Climate Protection Plan into the building code and neighborhood plans:

"Adopt it by sectors of the city. Pick the neighborhoods most likely to support changes, and make those your 'early adopter' sectors."


Priming the Urban Pump

Austin will host the 16th annual Congress for the New Urbanism conference April 3-6, 2008. According to the CNU Web site (www.cnu.org), "New Urbanism is repairing the damage done to our cities through environmental degradation, misguided infrastructure projects, and designs that isolated the poor." CNU XVI: New Urbanism and the Booming Metropolis will bring to Austin "the world's experts in enhancing walkable, sustainable mixed-use development" to explore strategies for enhancing the character and function of communities. The 2,000 participants annually include developers, architects, landscape architects, town planners, urban designers, real estate professionals, consultants, and government officials.

Conference organizers hope CNU XVI will positively shape growth and development patterns in the Austin region – as has occurred in other host cities. "With the rapid development occurring as more and more people are moving to our community, it's imperative that growth happen in a responsible way. We hope this conference will help promote smart growth in Austin and throughout Central Texas," said Austan Librach, president of the Central Texas CNU Organizing Committee.

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