New Urbanism – My Journey

This past decade, I have found myself answering this basic question of how I ended up in the world of new urbanism. I certainly did not grow up in an urban environment, and when I mention that I am from Nebraska, people really get confused of how I could have such a passion toward something that is the opposite of the perception of a place like Nebraska. Mostly, they are right. Most of Nebraska is not urban at all, but there are several small towns throughout the state that embody exactly what new urbanism promotes – walkability and a sense of community.

My childhood home for my elementary school years in Grand Island, Nebraska. Image from Google Earth, 2021.

My childhood home was in a small town in most respects, but the third largest city in Nebraska of around 30,000 people – today Grand Island has a population of over 50,000 residents. I lived in four different houses, all in Grand Island, all suburban in nature, all with 2-3 car garages in the front of the homes. Each home suited my family well and I really loved each for their different nuances. I had great friends that lived nearby at my elementary and middle school homes and spent most of each day wandering the neighborhoods playing baseball, soccer, basketball and football. Life was great, which probably differentiates me from many “urbanists” in understanding the appeal of the suburbs. I get the appeal – life in suburbia was awesome for me.

In high school, I drove about ten miles to school, work and to be with my friends. It was what I knew and never really questioned it. I left Grand Island for another relatively small city for college – Manhattan, Kansas – the home of Kansas State University. Dorm life was walkable, my car was parked 10 minutes away by foot so I drove it home and really nowhere else. My first apartment was not as walkable, but still bikeable to campus. My second apartment had good proximity to a grocer that I could have walked, but rarely did. Again, I never really questioned any of this. I had a car and enjoyed driving it (this honestly probably sounds familiar to most people from the Midwest).

After college, my first professional job was in Omaha at HDR in their Planning Department. I clearly had not embraced the principles of the New Urbanism as I purchased my first home in Omaha straight out school in the epitome of suburban sprawl. (You can read more about this experience here Quantifying the effects of suburban living). Within the first two weeks, I was thrust into my first community meeting for a four-square mile neighborhood planning effort, called “Destination Midtown”. HDR was approaching the planning effort with the principles of the new urbanism in mind. At the post-community meeting, where I remember being completely exhausted, my friend at HDR, Troy Henningson, said to me, “Johnny ****’n O, you’re sitting in Andres Duany’s seat” (apparently they had hosted Andres just before this for a presentation and had dinner with him after at M’s Pub in the Old Market). My reaction shocked them when I simply said between beer sips, “I don’t know who that is.” For those who also may not, Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are the founders of DPZ, the architects behind Seaside and countless other new urbanism projects. DPZ is the iconic firm in the world of new urbanism – a firm I spent the next five years studying and idolizing.

I had no clue how much my response to that statement from Troy at dinner would change my life – for the better. Troy and my other colleagues at HDR swiftly armed me with books and literature about the new urbanism, from books by Andres Duany, Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and James Kunstler. I began questioning everything from my suburban lifestyle, my automobile commutes, what I wanted to do… I questioned everything.

A couple short years later, I was a tail-tucked puppy ashamed of my suburban home and lifestyle and promptly wanted a change. I sent resumes and inquiries to three firms soliciting positions with a new urbanism mindset, each of which I interviewed and was offered a job. The next big task was figuring out where I wanted to be – Dallas, Boulder, or Colorado Springs. For most urbanists, the choice would be Boulder, but I am glutton for punishment because I chose the community that I felt needed me the most – Colorado Springs. I saw it as the current Mayor sees it – a City with infinite possibility due to its natural setting that very few can rival. The adjacent natural environment is breathtaking! For me, I saw so much opportunity for redevelopment and to help create great places that can come close to matching its beautiful setting. As a fifteen-year resident of Colorado Springs now, I can say that we are getting there, but still have quite a way to go. The bar is set high, but we have great momentum.

In writing this, I still cannot give a straight answer to the question. But I believe the answer is closer when I reflect on visits with my grandparents in both Genoa, Nebraska and more specifically in Gibbon, Nebraska. Of course, the highlight was in seeing my grandparents, but I have very vivid memories of walking to the small grocery store with my Grandpa for cookies, ice cream, and occasionally candy cigarettes. This small town where you could walk to the park, grocery store, restaurants, post office and other places provides a great sense of nostalgia. It was so wonderful with the happenstance meetings with my grandparents’ friends on the way – ok, I do remember that part getting annoying as a kid…after all, the ice cream was going to melt!

This sense of community has been lost in suburban sprawl and automobile dependency today. I believe that if offered the choice of where a person’s home (apartment, townhome, condo, single-family homes all included) are situated, most would love to have this sense of community. This is what new urbanism means to me and why I push as hard as I do to bring back community. Thanks for joining me in this memory recollection exercise!

The hate for cities has gone too far

The suburbs are mistakenly having a moment as Cities have become the patsy for the Covid-19 pandemic. Lazy, surface level views of the pandemic have duped cities as the enemy while some are even making major life changes as a result.

Yes, cities represent areas of greater density and population. Cities also represent commerce, economic prosperity, cultural and social wellbeing. Many, including myself, have first-hand experience of the disparity of living the suburban lifestyle. We understand the health and standards of living that are associated with living long distances between where they dwell and where they learn, work and play. As I wrote about nearly a decade ago in Quantifying the effects of suburban living, the long commutes to and from work put a toll on my family. I saw my wife and newborn daughter less every day and found myself spending far too much money on fast food and other ways to make up for lost time driving.

Cities provide greater choice for restaurants, markets & shops, as opposed to limiting the concentration into a single large box for the population served.

Understandably, the world and how we experience life will be different on the other side of the pandemic. I believe that less time will be spent in the conventional office setting with the past two decades of discussion about telecommuting will become closer to a reality. Yes, this may mean that living further from the office will become easier, but how do we maintain our social wellbeing in the mono-cultural settings of suburban development? Is living in single use, isolated places really going to make one safer from diseases, or will it actually make it worst?

In Colorado, the pandemic’s spread was not rooted in a large city. It was in fact in a ski resort. In Colorado Springs, the spread began with friendly card (Bridge) tournament. In my hometown of Grand Island, Nebraska, it was in a meat packing plant. Does this mean that we should blame skiing, playing cards or industrial businesses? Absolutely not! So why is it that we point the finger at cities and suggest that we shift our dependence even deeper to suburban living and the automobile?

The discussion shouldn’t be about cities versus suburbs. This notion is dangerous and naive as it assumes that where there is greater density, everyone just lives together, sharing bathrooms, kitchens, etc. The discussion really should be more about the concentration of people, funneled into using shared doors, buttons, keypads, etc. We need to consider scale and concentration first. We need solutions that don’t depend on shared buttons.

The City vs. Suburban narrative ignores the fact that suburban living actually concentrates the services for the suburban dwellers to mega big boxes, mega churches, mega gas stations, mega nursing homes etc. where thousands of people drive to regional commercial centers where thousands share grocery carts, gas pumps, cafeterias, offering plates, communion bread and grape juice. Cities provide smaller scale restaurants, shops, markets, churches, etc. with less concentration of users. This is where Cities and Town Planning needs to evolve. We need to design our places to be more integrated with a greater focus of more, but smaller.

This does not preclude suburban living, I believe that will always have its place in the United States, but my hope is that suburban development looks deeper into more scalable, integrated opportunities. New development will hopefully include a mixture of housing types and prices and provide opportunities for walkable, integrated restaurants, retail, schools, technological and office settings.
Let’s learn from Covid-19, because if we are naive to the fact that another coronavirus or other disease will follow in the future, we will continue to suffer economic and social hardships. Let’s take this lesson and create places that can sustain our communities.

The Covid 19 Effect on Food in Colorado Springs

With the virus changing our patterns as a civilization, we have to rethink how we dine. Dining in public places was already experiencing dynamic changes in the past few years. People were already dining out less and opting toward the restaurants that were neither dine-in or fast food – places more similar to Chipotle where counter or online ordering then sitting at somewhat clean tables.

Covid-19 has taken this to a whole other level where delivery and take-out are king. But there is something about it that still misses the pleasing aspect of dining out. I believe that warmer weather is going to open up the possibilities as we continue safe distancing protocols in 2020. Yes, if you were thinking that I was going to say food trucks, you’re right!

Photo courtesy of Jana Bussanich Fine Art

Food trucks entered the Colorado Springs scene in a major way in 2013. As a part of the Colorado Springs Urban Intervention at the time, we really wanted to bring this placemaking element to Colorado Springs that was prevalent elsewhere. We were fortunate to have the support of the City of Colorado Springs, the Downtown Partnership and other individuals who also believed in what would be Curbside Cuisine. Our CSUI group championed this food renaissance for the remainder of 2013 before a separate board was created to see it through. It eventually ran into issue with the infrastructure and had to close, but it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t come back. In fact, the Downtown Partnership continued to champion this renaissance in the past couple years at the Pioneer’s Museum. I am unaware if it is coming back in some manner or not this year, but I think it is important to enable food trucks to think beyond entities setting up infrastructure and make awesomeness happen all over town on other coordinated days of the week.

People would love to have access to good food, so it would be best for the trucks to go to the people. I have assembled a map of Colorado Springs identifying some of the locations where I believe that it can be successful without additional permissions or infrastructure.

In Colorado Springs, the public streets allow for Food Trucks as long as the truck is meeting the legal obligations of the City (parking legally). In general, this means that they must be parked where parking is allowed and not impede traffic. They are also not allowed to park in metered parking spaces.

In the assembly of this map, which is certainly far from an exhaustive list, our Civic Design Partnership team looked to areas of higher density residential (townhomes, apartments, or greater density single-family homes) and the presence of public space where a picnic could occur for enjoying food. The following were some of our suggested locations:

Downtown: Pueblo Avenue at the intersection of Nevada and Pueblo (southeast of the Pioneer’s Museum where the Concrete Couch Pumpkin sits) includes angled, non-metered parking where a truck could park across the center line and take up two spaces if necessary. There are also some striped-off areas outside of the crosswalk that could also park a truck or some tables and chairs. Beyond this, Cimino Drive adjacent to America the Beautiful Park is also an opportune location as soon as the Pedestrian Bridge is complete connecting downtown to the park.

West (Old Colorado City): To the north of Bancroft Park, there is a block’s worth of parallel, non-metered parking that could have a truck or two. This would also help activate Bancroft Park, which has been something that the Old Colorado City Neighborhood has been desiring for quite a few years.

Southwest: Lower Gold Camp Road adjacent to Gold Camp Park is another opportune location for food trucks. This area taps into the residents that live nearby to Bear Creek Park, Lower Skyway and Gold Hill Mesa. Gold Hill Mesa has been home to several food trucks during events in the past where the food truck operators enjoy a great amount of business. With a little help from the Gold Hill Mesa social media group, this could be a gold mine for food trucks.

Northwest: The Pinon Valley Park includes several on-street parking spaces on the northwest side of Colorado Springs where food trucks could flourish. There are a good number of town houses, residents and of course the benefit of it’s proximity to Ute Valley Park makes this a great location for food trucks.

Southeast: Southeast Colorado Springs may have been the first to bring food trucks into the equation, but they have predominantly been located along large arterials in parking lots. There is a food truck movement of sorts occurring in a mostly-abandoned shopping center along Circle Drive (Spring Creek Shopping Center), just east of the Spring Creek Neighborhood. These options will continue to be successful, but there are other opportunities nearby some of the parks and high density areas of the southeast including Van Diest Park, Roy Benavidez Park and Deerfield Hills Park.

Central: The east side of Hancock Avenue along Boulder Park presents a great opportunity to bring food closer to the neighborhood (and the hospital) near Memorial Hospital in Central Colorado Springs. There is a good amount of density in this area and Hancock permits parking along the street (though not greatly used) This is one of those streets that could also use some traffic calming in which this would aid to assist. A similar opportunity exists along Templeton Gap Road adjacent to Nancy Lewis Park.

Northeast: Flying Horse Road in northeast Colorado Springs is a residential street adjacent to Springs Ranch Park northwest of the intersection of Peterson and Pony Tracks Drive that would serve a large population of Northeast Colorado Springs. We got to know this park and area fairly well when working on the Pony Park pocket neighborhood to the south. It is an under-served area for restaurants and would be a great opportunity to provide food for the nearby residents without the need for the automobile.

Please respond below in the comments with any other suggestions. Let’s not let the virus sour our summers, let’s figure out how to gain greater access to local food and leverage our resources instead!