An Introduction to New Urbanism in Florida

by Dr. David Brain

A quick glance at the New Urban News is enough to tell you that Florida holds a significant place on the leading edge of the New Urbanism, and has done so from a time well before the movement had a name or a charter. At most recent count, Rob Steuteville, the editor of New Urban News, reports that there are 29 projects of at least neighborhood-scale (15 acres or more) under construction, and a total of 48 New Urbanist projects in the pipeline. This list does not include smaller infill or redevelopment efforts, or the many planning efforts oriented toward existing towns, or the remaking of landscapes currently falling prey to sprawl; efforts being undertaken by counties, cities, small towns, and neighborhoods across the state. Research undertaken for this guidebook have identified up to some 66 New Urbanist projects in Florida, of which 56 are included in this guidebook.

In her foreword to the Charter of the New Urbanism, Shelley Poticha writes that what we now call “New Urbanism” is a movement that “began as a remarkable set of conversations aimed at systematically changing the ground rules for development in North America” (p. 1). It would be hard to overstate the importance of the strands of these conversations that grew out of the example set by Robert Davis, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in the unlikely landscape of the Florida Panhandle. It may be that the legacy of Seaside is, in itself, enough to qualify Florida as “the state of the New Urbanism” (to borrow the title of a conference held a few years ago at the Seaside Institute). Seaside still stands as an extraordinary exemplar, illustrating key principles of town planning and urban design, but more importantly, demonstrating the possibility of re-activating a process of traditional town-making with lessons relevant to bringing the compelling quality, vitality, and complexity of traditional urbanism to the making of a wide variety of contemporary places.

Florida’s contribution did not end with Seaside, however, or even with Celebration, the other Florida project that has tended to dominate both press coverage and popular perception of the movement. If Florida has remained in the vanguard as the movement has grown, it is because one can find projects representing the application of New Urbanist ideas to the full range of problems identified in the Charter of the New Urbanism, from neighborhood to region. A complete list of projects in Florida could be taken as an encyclopedic guide to the ways that New Urbanists are working on different kinds of problems at different scales: from new towns to modest infill projects, from revitalized downtowns to transformed malls, from regional plans of impressive scope to small overlay districts, from projects bringing new life to faltering small towns to projects repairing huge wounds in the fabric of large cities, from upscale resorts to HOPE VI revitalizations of public housing.

One of the drawbacks of the tendency to associate the New Urbanism exclusively with a few of the more dramatic and photogenic projects has been that popular discussion has emphasized the look and feel of the traditional architecture, particular elements like front porches, the association of the form of a small town with an earlier, simpler time, or the supposed inauthenticity of a resort community built from scratch. Such discussions have been misleading, to say the least. Although the New Urbanism has often been associated with the simple idea of reviving pre-war traditions in town building, it is clear that in order to revive our ability to build livable communities and re-create a culture of place-making, the New Urbanism has sparked wide-ranging creativity and innovation throughout the whole matrix of professions and institutions that have an impact on the way we build. The movement has spurred changes in the professional practices of architects, urban designers, planners, land developers, traffic engineers, and other professions involved in shaping the built environment, as well as significant changes in the construction industry, in land development practices, in the standard practices of mortgage lenders and other financial institutions, and in the regulatory efforts of local, state, and federal governments. All of this is demonstrated in the range of Florida projects, and the issues at stake are clearly illustrated in the mix of successes and failures represented by each.

Why has Florida provided such a fertile ground for New Urbanist projects of every sort? First, the New Urbanism has taken root most quickly and deeply in those states, like Florida, which have experienced the most dramatic growth and development pressures in the last two decades. The pressures created by the growing population of residents have been exacerbated by the simultaneous rapid growth of Florida tourism. From 2.8 million people in 1950, Florida’s population reached almost 16,000,000 residents in 2000, not including the estimated 49 million tourists who visit annually. Five of Florida’s cities made the “top 20” list of cities threatened by urban sprawl. In the period between 1990 and 1996, Orlando’s population grew by 28%, but its land area grew by 68%. Pensacola’s land area grew by 95% during the same period.1 It has been estimated that an average of 450 acres of forest and 410 acres of farmland are lost every day. The good news is that the stubbornly healthy market for Florida real estate has produced a seemingly endless string of unusual opportunities to create remarkable places—and to make a financial success of it.

South Florida Population Projection (click for larger graph)

South Florida Population Projection

Second, we need to recognize that Florida’s innovative growth management efforts predate the emergence of the New Urbanism as a movement. In 1971, Governor Reubin Askew asked John DeGrove, then serving as director of the FAU-FIU Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems, to help lead a diverse group of 150 people in the form of the Governor’s Commission on Water Management in South Florida. The group’s recommendations led directly to the Environmental Land and Water Management Act, the Comprehensive Planning Act (the first effort to do a state comprehensive plan), Chapter 259 (the beginning of the most ambitious environmentally endangered lands program in the nation, and the predecessor to Preservation 2000), and Chapter 373, which established the state’s system of regional water management districts. In 1975, Florida passed the Local Government Comprehensive Planning Act, mandating that every city and county in the state have a plan. These efforts established the foundations for comprehensive growth management, the protection of environmentally sensitive lands, and land use planning at the state level, while also developing mechanisms for coordinating state-level planning with planning at the regional and local levels.

From its inception, the Florida Department of Community Affairs has explored new ways to link the coordinating capabilities of the state with local and regional initiatives, but it has also worked to give real substance to citizen participation in the planning process at every level. In addition, much of this work has been carried on in the context of the water management districts and the regional planning councils, with a scope that has often effectively linked the neighborhood to the region in ways that would not be possible otherwise. In 1996, the legislature created the Sustainable Communities Demonstration Project and Sustainable Communities Network, projects developed under Jim Murley’s leadership but originating with the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida (formed in 1994 by Governor Chiles, succeeded in 1999 by the Governor’s Commission for the Everglades). This program was intended to allow and encourage more local control over growth, empowering communities to develop long-term strategies addressing local problems, while generally supporting six principles of sustainability: restore key ecosystems; create quality communities and jobs; achieve a cleaner, healthier environment; limit urban sprawl; protect wildlife and natural areas; and advance the efficient use of land and other resources.

The sector planning initiative is another demonstration project oriented toward planning for a sustainable Florida. This demonstration project was modeled after Orange County’s 38,000-acre Horizon West plan and the Southeast Development Plan in the City of Orlando, and it is now part of the Growth Management Act. The Horizon West plan combines an initial conceptual overlay with detailed specific area plans and specialized land development regulations, all to establish distinct villages and neighborhoods which use public schools as community focal points. The Southeast Development Plan is a 19,000-acre area of greenfield development near the Orlando International Airport. Both of these plans are significant because they provide a model for cooperative land planning that transcends the projects of any single developer, but with the participation by multiple property owners and interests.

In general, Florida has seen an extraordinary array of public initiatives over the past 30 years at the state, regional, county, and local levels. It is generally recognized that Florida’s innovative growth management system has had mixed success, and that some mistakes have been made. This is perhaps one of the most interesting ironies, and a third reason for Florida’s place on the leading edge of the New Urbanism. While Florida has struggled to develop tools and institutions for comprehensive growth management, some htmects of our environmental regulation and growth management system have also inadvertently helped to encourage sprawl and make traditional neighborhood development more difficult to accomplish. At the same time, the laws and institutions developed as a part of that system have created important mechanisms and opportunities for the implementation of New Urbanist principles at every scale. Both the statutes and the administrative rules associated with growth management have incorporated language encouraging innovative planning aimed at controlling sprawl and encouraging higher quality development.

There is not room here to review the impact of New Urbanist thinking on Florida planning in any detail, but perhaps a couple of examples will suffice. The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council has played a significant role not only in shaping development in the region, but in the development of the use of the charrette as a tool for public planning. Experimentation with “sector planning” has encouraged regional efforts to govern the incorporation of new lands into urban growth in a more controlled fashion, using the transfer of development rights to protect rural lands and rural character while encouraging more compact and mixed-use development. Hillsborough County has developed a plan for transforming some of its worst landscapes of placeless sprawl into a system of town centers, creating an unusual regional framework for retrofitting conventional suburban development patterns based on a system of transect-oriented “tiers.” In a similar fashion, working within the existing legal and administrative frameworks provided by the state system, Sarasota County has been able to develop a comprehensive regional plan that attends to the form and quality of development, to its performance as human habitat and as the infrastructure of healthy communities, and not just to raw issues of quantity or density. Such plans give detailed attention to the way neighborhoods function as the building blocks of a regional system, plugging new development into the system in intelligent relationship to the enhancement of existing neighborhoods and the necessary preservation of natural landscape.

The New Urbanism has played a central role in a continuing evolution of tools and techniques of planning and growth management in Florida, and its principles have become an indispensable part of the vocabulary of planners, elected officials, and citizen activists. It seems safe to say that no other state has had quite this combination of challenges and opportunities, often in direct contradiction, including conditions that bring certain issues clearly to a head, obstacles to be overcome, and opportunities for experiment and innovative response. We have been lucky, of course, in the extensive community of talented practitioners, visionary town founders, and advocates for change that has developed in Florida over the years, including many talented and dedicated designers, planners, citizens, and leaders who have responded to the challenges at hand.

We have also been lucky with respect to the presence of a number of institutions that might be seen as part of the civic infrastructure of the state. While Florida has provided ample opportunities for developers of all sorts, it also has a healthy stock of small towns with historic qualities worth preserving but which have been increasingly threatened by development pressures, both directly by conventional development patterns and indirectly by the environmental impact of sprawl. These towns have been greatly assisted in their efforts by preservation programs like the Florida Main Street Program, which now includes (according to the web site) 49 places in the state. This program has not only played an important role in maintaining the appearance and economic viability of historic downtown business districts in small towns around the state, but Main Street programs can be a crucial step toward empowerment, enabling citizens not only to preserve what they have but to demand something better than they would otherwise likely get from developers. Main Street programs are both an important tool and often the first step toward a more comprehensive effort toward livable and walkable communities.

Much of the receptiveness of Florida communities to New Urbanist propositions has been the result of educational efforts. Public charrettes and New Urbanist projects themselves, of course, have provided a surprisingly widespread and practical education around the state. The work of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council stands out in this regard. In addition, programs supported by the Florida Humanities Council (e.g., the Speakers Bureau, the “Florida as Home” program, seminars for teachers) have also helped to foster a sense of place and an appreciation for the history and heritage of Florida’s small towns. More specifically, the Seaside Institute has offered an extensive program of seminars and conferences. In addition to training seminars for practitioners, the Seaside Institute has organized forums and symposia to address broader issues associated with the revival of civic life and the rebuilding of a culture of place-making and town building. Programs in recent years have included (to name only a few): a conference on “Design as a Catalyst for Community,” a seminar on faith-based communities, a conference on mixed-income housing co-sponsored by the Urban Land Institute and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and even a program developed in partnership with an historic African-American neighborhood in Gainesville (supported by the Florida Humanities Council).

Jonathan Barnett has noted that a key innovation of the New Urbanism is “the recognition that design and planning concepts cannot be separated from their implementation mechanisms” (Charter, p. 9). In the diversity of Florida projects, one can see the full range of approaches to implementation: the cash-strapped developer with a vision, the major corporation with deep pockets and the ability to make substantial and patiently long-term investment up front, the non-profit foundation with an interest in the possibility of linking its community-building mission to its investment portfolio, public initiatives and public/private partnerships. One also sees the full range of implementation techniques related to financing, designing, marketing, creating the necessary legal documents, establishing a supportive legal framework in the relevant jurisdictions, and even building “community” once people begin to live in a place.

A final reason for Florida’s place in the vanguard of the New Urbanism is that it’s unique character as a sandy peninsula of delicate and diversely beautiful natural habitats provides a constant and vivid object lesson in the consequences of anything less than the smartest possible growth. Florida demands an environmentalism that goes beyond any simple sentimentality about the natural landscape. Florida faces development pressures that pose a clear and immediate threat to the livability of our communities—not only with respect to the inconvenience of traffic congestion or the aesthetic inferiority of conventional development patterns, but also at the level of the most fundamental issues concerning the availability of drinkable water and clean air. It has become painfully clear that the current patterns of development are not sustainable, in the simplest sense that they cannot continue. Behind the techniques of design that provide the most visible face of New Urbanist practice, there is a deep sense of responsibility concerning where and how we build, the way we relate to the ecosystems on which we rely for drinkable water, breathable air, and a sustainable future. New Urbanist practice, by enabling citizens to take responsibility for the form and character of their communities, holds the promise of new possibilities for a practical environmentalism to become a routine part of the way humans occupy the face of the earth. If we aren’t quite there yet, a study of Florida cases is as good a way as any to get a clear sense of both “best practices” and the work that remains to be done.