Moving Beyond New Urbanism

on February 8, 2016 / by Downtown Dallas Inc. / in Blog Posts, Economic Development and Planning

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Moving Beyond New Urbanism: Inclusive Planning and Design


Daniel Iacofano (co-author of this article) and MIG worked with the City of Dallas and Downtown Dallas Inc. (DDI) on a collaborative process to develop a visionary, comprehensive and strategic action plan for downtown. Built from the community’s vision, the Downtown Dallas 360 Plan addresses specific policies, programs, and projects to guide private and public investments and create a dynamic city center.

Beginning in June 2015, DDI and the City of Dallas launched the process of evolving Downtown Dallas 360 into strategies relevant to today through 2020. The first work phase focused on a neighborhood needs analysis and community conversations about priorities, assets, as well as vision, physical and social connectivity. MIG, Downtown Dallas Inc., City of Dallas, and CityDesign Studio worked with each neighborhood in Downtown Dallas 360’s fifteen districts to plan workshops, forums, and other outreach initiatives specifically designed for that area. For more information, visit

Urban planning—as with fashion, architecture, and dieting—has its fads, fashions, and styles. There is no doubt that we are now riding the wave of New Urbanism. Terms like form-based zoning, walkability, and transit-oriented development are on the lips of experts in planning departments and redevelopment agencies across the nation.

We applaud this trend. When New Urbanism burst onto the scene in the late 1980s, it was a breakthrough in reintegrating the social and physical aspects of planning. It brought with it a sense of the European city, a touch of the classic American Main Street, and an acceptance of the density and “messiness” that make cities vibrant and healthy places to live.

Over the past decade, however, many environments built under the rubric of New Urbanism have lost much of that original vitality. We are seeing more formulaic “instant” neighborhoods with no, or very little, sense of place. Downtown redevelopments often look like they’ve been stamped out of the same mold, drawn according to the same template: housing over retail, office over retail, etc.

While they may look inviting, these instant neighborhoods are not meeting the needs of all residents of the city. Take a closer look beyond the facades and the traffic-calmed streets. You’ll notice that housing is expensive and the shops even more so. The people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there can’t afford to live there. Many so-called lifestyle centers have all the requisite features of New Urbanism, including nicely designed residential-over-retail buildings. The result does not work as a neighborhood, however. Instead of looking like a simulacrum of Main Street, it more closely resembles a large mall with the roof removed. Where are the kids, the parks, the neighborhood-serving stores? Chic boutiques on the corners don’t make a socially, economically, and culturally inclusive community.

The problem is that urban planners once again are becoming too reliant on the physical design approach to infill and urban redevelopment. This is understandable. Trends in planning, after all, do swing as dramatically as fads in fashion. New Urbanism was, in a very real sense, a reaction to the overemphasis cities had been placing on providing social services, health care, and jobs. In the wake of urban riots in the ’60s and the grim specter of abandoned downtowns during the ’70s, social services were a crucial and necessary focus. But in the process we almost completely neglected classical city and building design elements. New Urbanism aimed to reintegrate them.

Now we feel the pendulum swinging back to overemphasis on physical design. It is time to stop the wild swing of planning styles we have all witnessed over the past half century and bring the pendulum back to a point where physical design and the needs of all residents in our cities are equally addressed.

How do we get there? The solution is a focus on inclusive planning and design based on economic, social, environmental. and culturally sensitive policies that allow everyone to improve economically as the physical area improves. Cities need planning that recognizes that all individuals have the right to full and equal participation in the built environment—and that through their direct involvement they can shape their own environment to meet their own needs.

To support a conversation about inclusive design for planners, elected officials, and community members, we have proposed a broad, inclusive policy framework to help guide urban area decision-making. Elements include:

Economic Development

Land use and public policy decisions that create opportunities for everyone to have access to a variety of quality jobs and to fully participate in the economy of the city.

Housing and Neighborhoods

Codes, zoning, and incentives that generate safe, healthy neighborhoods with a range of housing types and price levels to accommodate diverse socio-economic backgrounds and lifestyle choices.


Full access to quality education choices for all residents, with shared use between schools, parks, and community facilities.

Access and Mobility

Viable, multimodal, and interconnected public transit systems with seamless spaces that are friendly and inclusive of everyone: those with disabilities, young children, seniors, and parents pushing baby carriages.

Habitat Protection and a Safe Public Realm

Connected, safe, healthy, functional, and green connections with pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets that reactivate the public realm and lead to environmental stewardship.

Community Facilities and Gathering Spaces

Well-maintained and usable open spaces that can be built, landscaped, and maintained with funds from selling development rights.

Cultural Meaning

Spaces and places to express cultural rituals and display social and cultural symbols that have meaning for all residents, ensuring that projects—especially large-scale redevelopments—retain a distinctive sense of place and neighborhood.

These policy guidelines are far from theoretical. Over the past decade there have been many projects that exemplify this approach and fulfill many of the policy considerations.

The Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland, CA, was the result of the community coming together and insisting that a new development centered on transit also include affordable and senior housing, offices, neighborhood-serving retail, a childcare facility, a library, a senior center, a health clinic, and a public plaza.

In Seattle, WA, downtown property owners have partnered with low-income housing providers. The city changed the development code to increase the housing height limit. Builders buy the extra height and that money goes toward affordable housing.

In Washington, DC, where disenfranchised areas like the low-income Anacostia Waterfront have borne the brunt of political wrangling for years, an innovative new comprehensive plan is adding jobs, education, arts, and cultural elements.

San Antonio’s Hemisfair Park—which includes Yanaguana Gardens and Complete Streets environments—is transforming the 1967 World’s Fair site into one of the great attractions of the city, making downtown living more appealing for families while also attracting regional visitors.

In West Sacramento, CA, West Capitol Avenue has become the heart of the community with a true sense of place. The city is seeing investment by a hotelier, a bank, and small businesses, and the street has welcomed a college, community center, an updated library, and remodeled transit centers.

Addressing impacts of expanding its campus in an economically disadvantaged area south of the city, the University of California in San Francisco is offering economic mitigations, including reserving eight acres for usable public open space, and creating high school and college programs for local residents to train for well-paid staff positions.

In Pittsburgh, PA, Market Square is a redesigned public space with new, compatible surrounding land uses that are now appealing, inviting, and safe for all users.

In Ocala, FL, community members worked with the city on a downtown master plan with development standards and guidelines that restored a dynamic, active environment in the heart of the city.

These inclusive projects share two important elements that are crucial to creating successful projects. The first is an emphasis on robust public participation. We strongly believe that each project has to fulfill the community’s vision. All too often public participation is done entirely pro forma with no real input. The inclusive approach ensures that everyone who is eventually going to live in the area—or be affected by it—needs to be involved in a meaningful way. And community members have to know their ideas and comments will be incorporated into the design. That’s the kind of involvement that builds the community and makes a project truly inclusive.

The second common element is equitable sharing: The local community that is impacted needs to get a proportionate share of the benefits. In far too many cases involving redevelopment, prices rise and the original inhabitants are forced out, destroying neighborhoods and historic communities whose roots can go back more than a century. In each case where redevelopment results in an uptick in property values, the increase in tax revenue generated thanks to the revitalization should go directly back to the area that generated them in terms of improvements that bring real benefits.

This approach is already being supported by community members in San Francisco through “Community Benefit Zoning.” The right to develop a certain square footage is given in return for explicitly measurable benefits in that same neighborhood. Those benefits are measured in terms of parks, community facilities, ongoing costs of maintenance and operations, sidewalks, schools, transit—all the things that communities need to be healthy.

We need more policies like this. Despite the advances we have made in our urban centers over the past two decades, those with low incomes or who are disadvantaged in some way continue to live in the areas with the worst pollution and the heaviest traffic. Their parks, schools, hospitals, and other community facilities are deteriorating.

It is time to take everything we’ve learned from New Urbanism about the physical design of cities and, using a more inclusive approach, develop projects that go beyond just bricks and mortar. Our cities need to be public spaces where we’re giving the best of what the city has to offer to everyone.
Daniel Iacofano, Ph.D., FASLA and Susan Goltsman, FASLA are principals in the Berkeley-based planning and design firm MIG Inc. 

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