Director Robert Zemeckis chose for a quaint town square shadowed by a massive clock tower for his iconic DeLorean-powered-by-lightning scene in “Back to the Future.”
Such squares give residents the impression of community, allow them to mingle and experience common culture. For the past 70 years, however, that town center has been shoved aside and is experienced undamaged only in communities that have remained relatively intact and development free. Some in New England come to mind.
Now there’s a growing effort to change that through innovation and a re-creation of those old styles.
Most cities, Fresno, Calif. especially, have seen their historic town centers marginalized by sprawl and pockets of massive outward-bound commercial construction. In Fresno, the city moved north. Some of its deserted streets in downtown would make great post-apocalyptic movie sets.
Seattle and San Francisco found ways to beat the trend, focusing inward while still experiencing an explosion of suburbia. But their successes are overshadowed by a majority of U.S. cities and towns, whose residents learned to accept longer commutes, parking battles and frustrations that come with congestion.
Michael Freedman, urban planner and founding partner at San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung + Sasaki, spoke of such sprawl and its beginnings at the Smart Valley Places kick-off convention at the Radisson Hotel in Fresno. Then he tore off the veil. Smart Valley Cities is a partnership of cities, organizations and regional groups to promote sustainable development in the San Joaquin Valley.
“The market has shifted,” Freedman says.
Young people increasingly are gravitating to urban environments, settings made popular on sit-coms like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother.” They don’t want the cookie-cutter neighborhood, which almost served as the evil villain in “Edward Scissorhands.”
Somehow, Freedman says, developers missed this shift in demand that started in the 1990s, continuing to plunk subdivision after subdivision ever farther from city centers and work places, forcing commuters to endure longer drives, use more energy and spend more money.
Reversing that design mentality would save energy, reduce commutes and cost less. Energy savings alone would be a huge boon. Fewer vehicle miles traveled means huge reductions to greenhouse gas and emissions production.
Freedman gives a history lesson in community design in his presentation, explaining that our current system for designing cities arose from mechanization, industrialization and the assembly-line mentality of the early 20th Century, when Henry Ford pioneered profits by separating tasks and creating worker specialties.
The idea to separate housing, recreation, work and transport caught global fire after the appearance the Athens Charter, a treatise on urban planning by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. It was based on ideas reached by the Fourth Congress of the International Congress of Modern Architects, which took place in 1932 “mostly aboard a passenger boat which steamed from Marseilles, France, to Athens, Greece, and back again,” according to clio-online.
“We embraced this,” Freedman says. “This was cool. This was modern.”
Subdivisions were separated by incomes. “We had business parks,” he says. “We had shopping centers, separated by function with miles and miles of pavement… with miles and miles of utilities.”
The current system has fallen apart. Freedman cites Emerging Trends in Real Estate by Price WaterhouseCoopers, which says, “Homeowners slowly will accept that they can live comfortably and more affordably in smaller houses or apartments and gain economies from driving less.”
The annual report also says infill areas, or vacant lots, and cities with active neighborhoods and “urbanizing suburban nodes” will become more desirable among aging, baby boomers and their children. “At the same time, fringe suburban subdivisions – long car rides from work, shopping, and recreation amenities – lose some appeal.”
Innovation, Freedman says, is the answer and new design must incorporate cluster and density, synergy and mix and public places. Of course, he says, that’s exactly the opposite of most existing zoning regulations. “It’s a time of tremendous opportunity but also tremendous anxiety,” he says.