Thursday, September 16, 2010

Andres Duany Visits Salt Lake

My thanks to the taxpayers of American Fork for sending me to the mid-year convention of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. In one of the city council's more short-sighted budget cuts, all training was curtailed last year. This year, the training budget was restored, owing to which I have spent three days in Salt Lake this week boning up on such useful topics as tax diversification, pavement management, emergency preparedness, and land-use planning.

This morning, the keynote speaker was Andres Duany, known also to me as Andres the Great and Duany the Dynamic. In the years before I ran for city council, when I was a neighborhood activist, I slept with his book Suburban Nation under my pillow. I dogeared the pages and scribbled in the margins and underlined whole paragraphs. This was probably not a good thing, given that my copy was on loan from the library. I learned that I could return the book in the morning, then retrieve it off the shelves later that afternoon. I managed, by such devious means, to keep the book under my pillow for months at a time and this is how it is that I can quote entire chapters.

You can imagine my excitement, therefore, to hear Mr. Duany in person. He did not disappoint. The man is pure genius, with a manner of explaining his art that reminded me of a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Leonard Bernstein. Debonair and polished, he spoke with just the slightest accent which, Google tells me, came from time spent in Cuba. His manner is charming, humorous, and a bit eccentric. At one point he told us of his admiration for West Jordan's Daybreak, a classic application of the New Urbanist toolbox. "I could not have designed it better myself," he told us, and then added, with a twinkle in his eye, "and that's a very great compliment." An ego? An eccentric? A little of both, I suppose, but he comes by it honestly.

What he taught us about the great state of Utah this morning turned my thinking upside down, and it will challenge your thinking as well.

First, he said, he has been to Utah several times in his career: ten or twelve. It is remarkable to him that everybody here is so happy with their community. We are a stark contrast to the people of other metropolises, he said, who are all great authorities on what is wrong with the community. Clearly, he said, "Utahns have a very low level of self-critique."

I laughed, but only through tears. When I first moved here in 1998, I was greatly disappointed by the poverty of the parks system, by the paucity of books in the library, and by the poor sidewalks all over town. I, too, marveled that so many could speak so highly of Utah's quality of life. If I had felt satisfied with Utah's quality of life, I would never have done such a thing as run for city council.

Next, he told us about a design project he began for the city of Tooele, Utah. One of the hallmarks of Mr. Duany's New Urbanism is its reliance on narrow streets to enhance pedestrian safety. During the design process, he came head-to-head with a senior city staffer who put his fist down on the table, looked Mr. Duany in the eye, and said, slowly, "Brother Brigham likes wide streets."

"The theological argument was OVER," Mr. Duany told us. The process fell apart from that point forward, and in the end, his firm did not put its name on the plans.

Now, I've always been rather proud of Brother Brigham and his wide streets. I was greatly surprised, therefore, when Mr. Duany proceeded to teach me that there was more to Brigham Young's vision than I had supposed.

During the period of western expansion, we learned, countless cities were platted. Very few of them survived. The west is littered with ghost towns, towns that were built on little more than an agreement with the railroad to place a stop at a given location. When the train stopped, a hundred people got off. Ninety-six of them were male farmers. With no females or families, and no diversity of professions -- nobody even who could build a box in which to ship crops to their intended markets -- these cities quickly dried up.

But Brigham Young platted more than two hundred cities stretching from Utah and parts north all the way to San Diego, and every one of them is today a thriving community. This is a sure sign, Mr. Duany told us, of a visionary planner.

The plat of Zion had two unique characteristics. One was its wide streets with their 132-foot right-of-ways (ROWs), streets wide enough to turn an ox-team. The other was its wide, 660-foot city blocks. (Most cities plan blocks of 220 feet.)

Did Brigham Young foresee a day of six- and eight-lane boulevards with stoplights at every corner and exhaust spewing from every tail pipe? Did he envision city blocks with large shopping malls and half-empty parking lots stretching as far as the eye can see?

This is what most of us Utah Mormons have grown up believing. But Mr. Duany persuaded me this morning that Brigham Young saw far beyond this day.

First he told us of pictures he has seen of Zion in its early days. He told us how the wide ROWs allowed for organic road design. Roads could meander within the ROW, adapting here to a tree, there to a contour, widening in front of a factory or through a downtown, then returning to the countryside and shrinking down to size.

Then he hazarded a few predictions for the twenty-first century. America will have to resign itself to expensive oil, he said, and to less prosperity. His prediction places our level of wealth back where it was in the 1960s -- not a bad time, but not the wild, rollicking prosperity of the late twentieth-century.

In this climate, he said, people will come to rely more on the land -- as witness the present movement toward keeping chickens -- and more on each other. A return to smaller, nuclear, more walkable communities, he says, is inevitable. And this is just the kind of community that a 660-foot block will readily support.

Do I believe Andres Duany to be as great a prophet as Brigham Young? Probably not. (Though, to be sure, I have never slept with the Discourses of Brigham Young under my pillow.) Will Mr. Duany's predictions come true? I have no idea.

But his speculation this morning helped me see and appreciate Brigham Young in a whole new light. As I said, it turned my thinking upside down. It's a rare speaker who engages me so deeply.

At lunch, I was privileged to sit with Mr. Duany's colleagues, who taught "place-making" seminars throughout the day. I asked them the question that has long puzzled me.

The philosophy of New Urbanism, in a nutshell, seeks to restore America to more traditional, sustainable, walkable communities. In my years on the city council, wrestling with land use issues, I have observed that New Urbanism, however ideal it sounds, does not readily adapt itself to our highly suburban state. Where do we begin?

The answer confirmed what I had already been thinking. The answer begins in our downtown.

There is a time and a place for everything, including suburbia. And there is no more suburban mindset than that of the typical American Fork cab-driving mother with her multiple children to be ferried to school, to soccer, to piano.

But there needs to be something for other phases of life also, and if we can restore the heart of our downtown to the kind of vibrant, walkable community that our pioneer forebears once knew, then it will become not only an desirable destination, a destination which contributes the economy rather than putting a drain on it, but also a place of pride that will better accommodate those sectors of our society that are traditionally underserved, especially seniors and students.

New Urbanism isn't for everyone. But it's a movement we must respect for making us think more deeply about what we value in our communities. For that reason alone, I highly recommend Mr. Duany's book, Suburban Nation, to you. Check it out and read about one of the movement's first planned communities, Seaside, Florida, the charming, idealistic town where The Truman Show was filmed. Check it out from the American Fork library . . . no, wait. It's under my pillow.


Blogger Marilyn said...

Heidi, this is fascinating. I wish I could have heard him speak. And I'd like to read the book---hopefully our SLCo. library system doesn't have anyone hoarding it. :)

September 17, 2010 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger MarkS said...

Lyric post, Heidi. But clearly, Mr. Duany hasn't read the comments sections of the SL Trib if he thinks people here are happy.

From your description, I'd say Provo's restructuring of Center Street has captured some of his ideas, with the tree, median, and extended sidewalks at intersections.

September 28, 2010 at 6:58 AM  

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