(Interview by Geoff Kelly) Over the past four decades, urban planner Anton Nelessen and his associates have been refining the Visual Preference Survey, the means by which he encourages and puts to use public input in the urban planning process. Nelessen shows the community pictures illustrating various options before them and scales the public’s response to those images. He uses that response to gauge the public’s desire and support for the sort of changes that he espouses: greening cities, opening them up, freeing them of the chokehold of car culture, putting restraints on development patterns that encourage urban sprawl, creating tight-knit, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that bring people face to face and engender the energy and dynamism that make cities special places. Buffalo, NY, presents an object lesson in poor planning, as defined by New Urbanists, and a unique challenge, and will serve as the catalyst for our discussion.
GK: How can a city plagued by debt and reluctant to embrace radical change re-envision itself? How does a city so short on capital resources encourage investment in neighborhoods that no longer have viable commercial centers?
AN: In a comprehensive planning approach, all the existing, viable neighborhoods have to be identified. What are they, and how many are there actually? Okay, now what’s left? What’s left are dysfunctional neighborhoods and subdivisions. Now what do you do? You can’t put everything everywhere. You have to decide where you’re going to apply your resources, where you’re going to rebuild these neighborhoods.
It’s only through this process that you’re going to move away from sprawl and put your resources where they’re going to have the greatest benefit to the city and everywhere else in the shortest period of time. If that’s not done, the system continues as is and….what? You hope that it’s bottomed out? Well, “bottomed out” simply means it continues to do more of the same. If that’s the case, then God bless you but you’re never going to do anything other than continue a pattern that we know has been extremely destructive.
In the most extreme cases, like Camden, our recommendation is that two thirds of the city gets bull-dozed. You plant it in urban forest until the market comes back round again, or until the malaise is cured some way. You find five or six or seven or eight places that you can put a significant amount of redevelopment effort into, and you move people from dysfunctional neighborhoods that are barely surviving into more viable neighborhoods. And everything else simply gets land-banked.
GK: In a case like that, how do you overcome people’s attachment to a place?
AN: There is no neighborhood anymore. It’s ragged teeth of buildings here and there, lots of people on drugs, little kids barely surviving on the streets. If that’s what we want as a country and a culture, that’s fine. But if it’s not what we want, then something needs to be done. It’s time we stopped pussy-footing around and said, “We’ve got to begin to talk about planning policies.” Sprawl has devastated most cities, and the Buffalo area, because it is both losing population and has lots of housing being built on the periphery, is in an advanced state of sprawl.
Buffalo needs to shrink. The whole urban ecostructure needs to shrink. Where do you choose what shrinks and what doesn’t shrink? What do you keep and what do you dispose of? That becomes significant not only to localized planning but to regional planning.
GK: Your firm has done work in downtown Milwaukee and midtown Atlanta. What’s important in creating a plan for an urban core?
AN: One is using natural resources, water’s edges and parks, to a greater advantage, knowing that the most important thing for an American city is greening–that we know for sure. It’s greening, it’s open, it’s parks, it’s plazas, it’s water edges; wherever one can conceivably take advantage of that, that’s the first thing. Second is a combination of large entrepreneurship combined with smaller entrepreneurship. That is, large-venue activities downtown combined with a multiplicity of small restaurants, cafés, activity areas– that whole eating, cultural kind of thing downtown that is extraordinarily important.
Then, of course, the diverse cultural experiences which can only happen downtown and are best programmed into a downtown: festivals, fairs, different cultural events that focus on a downtown area to make downtown more of a destination. Then you have your team stuff–whether it’s basketball, football, baseball. The more of that, the better.
Those become the five or six interrelated sets of issues that need to be put together to make a downtown viable. And if any one of those is missing–if it’s missing a range of housing, if it’s missing a transportation system, if it’s missing the venues, if it’s missing the small shops, if it’s missing the pedestrian ambience– it is therefore missing its pieces. It’s like, “Okay, you can walk around, but you’ve only got one leg.” It’s all or nothing.
GK: There has been talk in Buffalo of reworking the waterside highways to restore access to the waterfront downtown. It’s expensive and ambitious, and Buffalo is broke.
AN: We did Milwaukee, and after completing the visioning process with the community, we had plans to take down both freeways going through the town–take them down entirely was the original plan. And then, for political reasons, the mayor was really concerned that if we came with a plan to take them both down it would be too radical. So we came with a plan to take down one–and then we only got half of that one taken down. But a city official told me on Friday that, because of the project’s reception and because the value of the land had increased so enormously, now they’re going to take the whole thing down. Which is really the radical solution, but by God they’re going to do it.
And the amount of development racing in to fill the gap–it’s like tidewater, it’s unbelievable.
GK: How is Milwaukee going to handle the displaced traffic?
AN: Well, the notion is that rather than having one mega-freeway floating above, you create a smaller network of grid streets. And where there was one mega-crossing over the river there will now be two or three smaller ones. It’s actually putting back the grid that was there before.
In Milwaukee we developed a thing called Park Once. If you’re going to have any of these freeways left–and you certainly will have freeways that will come around or bring you to the city, because as a regional thing you want to bring cars and suburbanites to the city– the idea is that you can park once and move freely throughout the city and never need a car again until you decide to leave. You can move anywhere within a prescribed area of the city by all elements of transit. You could actually live down there, park your car someplace and never have to see that car for months and months. This is really the essence of urban living.
GK: There is tremendous market support for development that creates urban sprawl. Faced with that, how do you market your approach?
AN: You do it the same way they do it. [Promote it.] Do you really believe the TV commercials promoting cars that are driving on roads that have no other cars on them? Is that honest or not? Is that real or not? Are you being lied to or not? Yes, we’re being lied to. Yes, it’s not true. Yes, it’s an illusion. What does that say to you about your thinking on the subject of cars? Let’s look at strip commercial development. Do you really think that’s appropriate? Is that the area you prefer, or do you go there because it just happens to be there?
The idea is to put doubt into people’s heads about the system that is currently there. The fact that $20 billion are being spent on advertising in a market economy is clearly a fait accompli. It’s done, it’s here, and that’s what the country’s been running on for 30 years or so.
One basic problem is that there are very few alternatives out there. And if they are out there, they are incapable of being built primarily because the zoning laws don’t allow it. The bureaucracies and the banks don’t allow it because they think it’s too much of a gamble, so they default to the same old thing over and over again. Meanwhile the environment continues to get worse and the people continue to hemorrhage. There’s something fundamentally wrong.
GK: Both in your writing and your work, you focus on the need to retool zoning laws.
AN: Most of the codes are Euclidean, and most of those codes are primarily words–perhaps 99.9% words with few illustrations in them. And a good many of those words come to be amended over time, to the point that the majority of people cannot read a zoning code and imagine it in three dimensions. They can’t read it, they can’t understand it, they don’t know it, and it’s no fault of their own. It’s really the fault of the planners not realizing that people can’t visualize in three dimensions. It’s a synapse malfunction that allows that to occur; people don’t normally have that ability. If someone has that ability, you can say they’re gifted and talented, but I usually say their synapses are probably connected quite wrong and they’re probably dysfunctional as well as very dyslexic. In fact, all the good architects I know are terribly, terribly dyslexic.
In most cases planning boards are concerned with traffic, because they know suburban traffic–they all have one or two cars. They all say, “Gee, can you plant a few bushes?” because they all have rhododendron fever. Everybody understands putting something in the ground. Those are the two things you normally see planning boards deal with, and they have nothing to do with trying to understand zoning codes in the context of something like neo-traditionalism, or good urban form, or quality civic space–all of which are completely unknown to the vast majority of people.
So how do you make that transition into something that says your most important public spaces are your streets, that those streets are determined by proportions of space, that the things that are most phenomenal about cities are the things that happen within those spaces–the interactions of food and color and space and sun and light and water? That’s all in your code. The code creates it.
We’re convinced that codes most begin to move to a more three- and four-dimensional basis. Over the last eight or ten years we have evolved a new set of computer tools that for the first time allow planners and the lay public to imagine what something could be in three dimensions. I believe the application of these tools is going to be one of the mechanisms by which a lot of these older codes are going to change.
We’ve never really given people choices, though people have been accustomed to believe that we have huge number of choices. Well, in reality, you may have lots of choices of underwear and lots of choices of shoes and lots of choices of cars, but you have very little choice of the actual bill of products that are out there. You’re programmed to believe that a silver car is really the right color car to have. You go down the line, and finally WalMart is the place to shop, and the consumer culture that has programmed you has completely won. And we go on our merry way, being told, “Gee, aren’t we lucky and successful and happy, and aren’t you glad you’re not Bosnian or Palestinian.”
GK: In reality people are being snookered.
AN: We have come to believe that if you talk to people out there and present an interesting range of opportunities for the future, they’re going to choose things that are interesting, are engaging, are delightful, and are beautiful.