Wharton Real Estate Review: Two Decades of Design and Development

Vancouver: a model for future urban development. From realestate.wharton.upenn.edu.

Witold Rybczynski, one of the leading theorists today in architecture and urban design, recently wrote this post for Penn’s Warton School, discussing the trends he has seen in development in the past twenty years. He argues that New Urbanism has gone a long way to bringing about the idea of denser suburbs and has eventually penetrated the city, although as the design competition for the new World Trace Center in New York showed, some cities are more committed to the idea of novelty in design than a return to neo-traditional techniques.

However, the ensuing chaos that has kept and will continue to keep the project from completion for years to come illustrates another point: the fact that developers nowadays have more say in the shape of a project than planners. This is both good and bad; developers are more in-tune with people’s demands via the market, but they are not concerned with creating connections to neighboring areas or with public goods such as transit. This was something I found particularly frustrating in Utah, where as a city we had very little we could do about the extremely low quality of development in our city. At least in urban developments such as the Atlantic Yards and Stapleton, developers know they can’t get away with designing crap, like they can in Utah.

Rybczynski also points to new trends in retailing. Malls, with the exception of some of the highest end ones, are largely gone, replaced by two opposite extremes: the low-end, no-nonsense, parking-friendly power center, which can be seen on any highway strip; and the mixed-use, walkable lifestyle center, such as Salt Lake City’s new City Creek Center, and Reston, Virginia. Though some developers have embraced mixed use development, they have to be aware of the issues involved: a higher standard of design; being careful about what uses you mix; and having development partners who both understand the value of mixed use and have the deep pockets to finance it.

Despite these challenges, Rybczynski argues that our greatest challenge will be increasing housing density, brought on by new energy markets and regulations as well as increased demand for urban living. Cities will have to build new, affordable, and family-oriented units, unlike the expensive units marketed at young singles and retirees that we see today. Though there are many urban models for how to accomplish this density increase, the trouble will come with how we densify the suburbs. He points to failed malls and other large suburban parcels as redevelopment opportunities, but worries about when we have to actually talk about changing zoning and redeveloping existing residential areas in suburbs. I’m a little less worried about this, because I think that communities that succeed in changing their density will simply be more economically desirable, and more intractable cities will either see themselves shrink into nothing or simply adopt changes later on. Again, I worry that my former workplace of Spanish Fork City is less prepared for this future than neighboring Springville, Utah, which has worked to create an attractive and walkable main street and increase densities in neighboring communities. Hopefully these and other communities will be prepared to address these issues when they arise.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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