Place Making: ‘Town Center’ Design

Nov. 18, 2004
Speaking With
What people need are choices. They need to be able to live near their work, be able to walk to more destinations, or to use transit effectively. Otherwise, they’re going to pay huge penalties in terms of their time spent in commuting every day.A “town center” is an area that mixes jobs with retail and housing — that really is, in the classic sense, a mixed-use environment serving a larger function in the surrounding community and the region. A “village center,” by contrast, is typically anchored with a neighborhood grocery store, that is, local convenience, and is really all about residential and retail. There is a fundamental distinction between the two.This idea of jobs mixing with housing and retail is now the new frontier. Of course, it’s difficult to talk about a “new frontier” since we’ve all been part of the recession for the past three or four years. At this particular moment, nobody is building office buildings — building jobs. But sooner or later in most metropolitan regions, jobs have to happen. Housing growth cannot continue unabated without a complementary growth in employment.Actually, every metropolitan planning organization and every metropolitan district area around the country controls the most valuable and important decisions about how growth will happen in that region. Where all the transportation investments for highways and transit fall in a region determines, to a very large degree, how development will be shaped in that region. There is a very strong causal relationship between regional planning and the future of development.You might argue this is very hypothetical, that market forces are really going to determine how development happens in these regions. But I would also posit that conscious decision-making about how development happens — the shape of it, the mix of it, the location of it, and the kind of infrastructure imbedded in it — is really central. And transit, of course, becomes a much more important component of the future.What happens when we plan greater densities, when we create mixed-use town centers and enhance the livability of the town centers with transit accessibility? If they were just being built because they looked good, or because there was a market niche for them, they wouldn’t be nearly as significant as the fact that they are really the underpinning, the fundamental building block, of how our regions can grow in a healthy way over the next generations.We’ve just completed a regional plan for Los Angeles, and the answer to the question of how can LA grow — by seven million people added to a population of 13 million over the next thirty years — is reinvestment and redevelopment of existing infrastructure. Intensifying development along the historic (streetcar) boulevards and avenues and corridors of LA is something that can and will
happen. It already is happening.
Wilshire Boulevard is fascinating — a thoroughly American version of urbanism. You have an extremely urban, high-density environment and then half a block away you have one- and two-story, single-family residential homes (which are quite valuable, by the way, because of their proximity to all that activity). So in a way, at the extreme end of things,
Wilshire Boulevard
becomes a paradigm for the most urban of the spectrum of development.I think we’ll see more and more of it, and of course it is mixed-use: the ground floor is retail. More typical in LA are the lower and medium-density strips. And this is where the biggest opportunities occur, as we can see both office mixed-use and residential mixed-use coming in and really making these “places.”What about greenfield development? It is still going to play a very large role in how our metropolitan regions grow. It’s not an either/or — it’s a balance point. Each region has a different balance point in terms of what percentage of development goes to infill and what goes to greenfield. In LA, because of the natural boundaries (mountains) and economics, infill redevelopment is now close to 45 percent without any regional regulation or strategies, so these things are becoming more and more natural.There’s a lot to be done in infill, but there’s also going to be major expansion areas in all regions, and how we structure these major expansion areas is really going to be key to how successful they are. Are they going to be just a replication of the past and get us into the same problem — and we’ll have to retrofit them twenty years from now? Or can we rethink the fundamental structure of how suburbs grow?In the West, growth typically begins with an arterial one-mile grid. The traffic engineers are going to impose it, and the state regulations are going to tell you exactly what those arterials are. And so we’re starting with an environment that’s chopped into 640 acre chunks. And we can do some nice village centers and nice mixed-use TNDs (traditional neighborhood developments) and New Urbanist neighborhoods within each one of these grids, and that’s happened a lot. But the fundamental structure of the place remains largely the same.You all know how it goes. There’s the freeway and, of course, commercial of various types clusters around it. Then the arterials — some of them become major strip corridors. At some intersections you get your grocery. This is the structure that, whether the planners zone it that way or not, is what happens. And it’s all predetermined because of the infrastructure.We’ve hypothesized a different structure. Basically it says, yes, most of the retail and town centers want to happen at the primary intersections of these arterials. It accepts that and tries to reshape the way the arterial itself functions so it’s no longer just a barrier between zones, but it actually can become the glue of the larger community.The alternative (to overloaded arterials) is to reshape the nature of the intersection so they become truly urban grids. Let’s abandon the idea of collector streets and put in what we call “connector” streets, which are much more frequent, which aren’t as dense as an urban grid but form a level of connectivity and continuity that allow local trips to basically stay on local streets. The underlying web allows town centers and village centers to evolve as truly local places.The structure is very simple. The arterial network has something we call “couplets” at the intersections that hold the town centers and village centers into an urban grid. The connector street fabric, that finer grain of connectivity, allows people to move around — also on bicycle and to walk to the adjacent town centers and village centers.Many town centers now have major civic elements. It’s part of their definition, above and beyond jobs and housing in the mix. If we acknowledge that we can’t support retail in the center of that area, then I think the center of those neighborhoods can be civic spaces — the school, the church, day care, community gathering places. So there is a focal point even at that finest grain of the single neighborhood.It is important to understand that the traditional neighborhood will not support retail in most suburban areas. It takes four or five of them to support a grocery store. But clustering four or five neighborhoods around village centers provides each one of them with access to a village center without having to really use a major arterial facilty.If arterials are designed only for cars — not for the community and mixed-use environments — then we are not going to expand the notion of town centers and village centers to a systemic level. So rethinking the fundamental structure of circulation in the suburbs is really going to be an important part of making truly mixed-use town centers and village centers play the role that they can — and should, over time.THIS ARTICLE CONSISTS OF EXCERPTS FROM A TALK BY PETER CALTHORPE, PRESIDENT OF CALTHORPE ASSOCIATES, BERKELEY, CALIF., AND A FOUNDER OF THE CONGRESS FOR THE NEW URBANISM, AT A CONFERENCE ON “PLACE MAKING: DEVELOPING TOWN CENTERS, TRANSIT VILLAGES, AND MAIN STREETS,” SPONSORED BY THE URBAN LAND INSTITUTE (ULI) IN SAN JOSE, CALIF., SEP. 13-14, 2004.

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