Bruce Stephenson. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Professor of Environmental Studies Bruce Stephenson gives students a tour of the New Urbanist community of Baldwin Park in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

New Urbanism and the Death of Sprawl

By Leigh Brown Perkins

Rollins professor believes
an exemplary Florida neighborhood could
save the world

For half a century, if the American dream had an address, it would have looked like this: Big house on a big lot with big cars in a big garage.

The mortgage on that dream address appears to have come due. Because of the economic and environmental realities of our time, Americans have begun to question how and where they live. Many people believe the answer is a movement called New Urbanism, a systematic approach to city planning intended to do away with sprawl and urban blight. The state of Florida is at the forefront of that movement, and Rollins Professor of Environmental Studies Bruce Stephenson is one of its most well-known proponents.

“Florida is actually the birthplace of New Urbanism,” said Stephenson, director of the Rollins College Hamilton Holt School’s Environmental & Growth Management Studies program and one of the founding members of the Florida Congress for New Urbanism, which has held is annual statewide meeting at Rollins the past four years. Florida has more New Urbanist projects completed or planned than any other state, including the prototype, Seaside, the Panhandle town designed 25 years ago by architects Andrés Duany ’95H and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk ’95H. It was described by TIME magazine then as “the most astounding design achievement of its era.”

Green Thumb

Benjamin Prince in the Enchantments mountain range in Central Washington.

Benjamin Price ’03
Inspired by his service-learning experiences at Rollins, Benjamin Prince decided to enter the Peace Corps after graduation. He was assigned to Belize, where he worked on community development and education in a rural village. Since then, he has worked in environmental education for organizations such as Northwest Youth Corps while managing to fit in some personal travel, including hiking the Appalachian Trail and trips to Central America and Southeast Asia. His latest adventure, however, will require Prince to stay put in the States for a while. In fall 2008, he was accepted into the University of Texas graduate program in community and regional planning. “My goal is a career that integrates the principles of equity and environmentalism into a viable economic framework,” Prince said. “The field of community planning is ripe for the application of creative ideas originating from fields as diverse as anthropology, business, and, of course, environmental studies. I have chosen to focus on the growing importance of water resource as a tool for directing long-range planning.”
(Prince is pictured above in the Enchantments mountain range in Central Washington, where he conducted trail work with Northwest Youth Corps, Summer 2007)

A graphic image of a leaf.

“New Urbanism” is Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s fresh take on an old concept, popularized in the 1920s by architect John Nolen, who designed St. Petersburg. Stephenson wrote the book Visions of Eden about Nolen’s revolutionary concepts. At the heart of both Nolen and New Urban developments is the kind of charm found in America’s quaint small towns: front porches, perfectly scaled architecture, town squares, shady walks, convivial hometown ambience. But there is more to New Urbanism than pretty buildings. Each community is constructed with clearly defined precepts, required by code: walkability, connectivity, mixed-use buildings, increased density, smart transportation, sustainability, and easy access to a higher quality of life—culture, sport, education, religion, entertainment, and nature.

The car is noticeably, and purposefully, in the background.

“In New Urbanism, walking is the main form of transportation,” Stephenson said. “It’s living like the Europeans do. We have to get out of our cars in America.”

To make this feasible, New Urban developers build denser communities around a central shopping area so basic services, schools, and entertainment are within a 10-minute walk of every residence. Making mass transit like streetcars and light-rail service available so residents don’t have to rely on cars to commute to work is also part of every New Urban plan.

It’s a concept that works particularly well in sunny Florida. More than 500 of the 2,000 New Urban projects in this country are in the Sunshine State, including Disney’s Celebration and the Martha Stewart neighborhood Avellino in Windermere.

Stephenson has acted as consultant for the redevelopment of Winter Springs as well as the City of Winter Park. He not only believes in New Urbanism as a civic pursuit and as an academic subject (he has used Orlando-area New Urban neighborhoods as case studies for Rollin College Conference courses and environmental studies classes), he lives it, at Baldwin Park. Like other New Urban spaces, Stephenson’s neighborhood is a carefully designed mixed-use, non-car-dependent cluster of homes, with porches, green spaces, playgrounds, and sidewalks.

“I live in paradise,” he said. “It takes me four minutes to walk to Publix and two minutes to walk to a park. Better still, it’s a 10-minute walk to an Irish pub! I’m staying healthy, saving money, living a really high-quality life. And the more global benefit is that I’m not supporting foreign oil, not adding to the traffic on I-4, not degrading our environment.”

Proponents of New Urbanism, like Stephenson, believe smart design can ameliorate more of society’s ills than just traffic congestion and sprawl. They say it will foster more community activism and connection because neighbors will actually see and interact with each other rather than merely passing in a drive-by. They say it will reduce the number of animals and plants on the endangered species list because habitat preservation is part of the New Urban ethos. They even believe it will solve America’s childhood obesity problem.

“When kids cannot visit friends, a park or the library without parental chauffeurs, they are deprived of the most elemental social experiences,” Stephenson wrote in a 2005 editorial in the Orlando Sentinel. He identified inactivity and obesity as “the product of addiction, in part, the lure of an auto-oriented lifestyle that trades health and vitality for convenience and the illusion of safety.”

While it’s hard to argue with the idea of breaking our dependence on oil and building lots of lovely, active neighborhoods that are priced fairly for any budget, opponents say New Urbanists are experimenting in social engineering, one cheerful, glossy block at a time. They point to the restrictive rules and codes necessary for maintaining such a polished paradise—even the house numbers must be of a certain size and type in most New Urban communities—and the forced closeness of denser neighborhoods as being contrary to the American way. They say such perfectionism is creepy, conformist, antiseptic. After all, Seaside, in its pastel-painted splendor, was used as the setting for the dystopian film The Truman Show, the perfect movie set of a perfect movie set.

Professor of Environmental Studies Bruce Stephenson lectures students at Baldwin Park. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

To most, though, the appeal is undeniable. In fact, the popularity of New Urban developments often prevents the kind of equitable pricing intended in their charter (the lowest-priced listing on a recent Seaside real-estate site was $1.2 million). Even those who support New Urban developments admit affordability is an issue. Randall G. Holcombe, DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, quoted in the book Planning in Paradise said, “Wherever they’ve been built, New Urbanist enclaves tend to be marked by exclusivity and escalating costs of living, pushing housing costs beyond the reach of many.”

New Urbanism may not be Utopia for everyone, but it is taking hold as both a style and as a civic movement. Even modernists and nonconformists who hate the Pleasantville vibe of New Urban neighborhoods have to agree with its principles when it comes to environmental impact. No matter how many energy-saving light bulbs you buy or how well insulated your house is, you’re not living green if you’re making 10 trips a day in your car. “New Urbanists advocate the best solution: global warming will be solved by walking,” Stephenson said. “It’s the answer to our energy crisis, our health crisis, our environmental crisis. Change your habitat and you change the world.”

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