New Urbanism at the NEA: A Q&A with Jeff Speck

Less than a month into his NEA job, director of design Jeff Speck discusses his principles, plans, and why mayors could benefit from an Urbanism 101 class.

As the NEA’s newly appointed Director of Design, Jeff Speck supervises the panel selection and grant-making process in design, as well as oversees the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and Your Town programs. Formerly the director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co. (DPZ), a pioneering New Urbanism (NU) firm that seeks to curb suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment, Speck has been involved in dozens of town and community revitalization efforts, including DPZ’s lauded project in Seaside, Florida. In 2000, he co-authored with DPZ principals Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk the NU manifesto Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point/Farrar Straus Giroux). Less than a month into his NEA tenure, Speck spoke with Metropolis Web editor Julie Taraska about his principles, plans, and why mayors could benefit from an Urbanism 101 class.

JT: As Town Planning Director of (DPZ), you were directly involved in building communities, thus turning your ideas and theories into physical reality. As the NEA’s Director of Design, your contributions will be more abstract—and far less tangible. How do you feel about that?
JS: Wow, really? That’s bad news! Actually, I guess you may be right in terms of bricks and mortar, but I hardly consider this an abstract exercise. The central frustration I had working at DPZ—that anyone has working in community planning—was the necessarily localized impact of our efforts. We would arrive in a city, be met with [“Not-in-my-backyard” attitudes] and other opposition, and then teach, preach, design, present, and almost always eventually turn the tide in support of smart growth. Then, the next week, we would arrive in a new place and be met with the same opposition and have to begin the same process all over again from scratch.

That is why DPZ founded the Congress for New Urbanism, wrote Suburban Nation, published the Smart Code, etc.: to get some of these efforts working at the national and global level. Those projects have begun to pay off, such that local communities are now much more receptive to smart growth than they were five years ago. I see working at the NEA as another opportunity to create positive change on the large scale, by working directly with the institutions, policies, and processes that intentionally or inadvertently control the design of our environment.

That said, many of the competitions, charrettes, and other projects that the NEA directly funds are happy contradictions to your suggestion. These efforts, like the New Public Works initiative, have had a dramatic impact on the physical form of major building projects nationwide. So I do expect to see tangible results fairly quickly, even if they are not from my own hand.

In these early days of your tenure, what are you priorities as Director of Design?
The NEA’s bread-and-butter activity is grant-making, and right now I am busy staffing our first panel [jury] for applications that came in last week…Our funding purview under design is quite wide, including planning, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, product design, graphic design, and historic preservation. But we are well-enough staffed such that every proposal gets a great deal of attention, and we are happy to talk to applicants once they get started.

But, to answer your question, my principal priority as Director of Design, as implied by the NEA mandate, is to bring good design to all Americans—no small task. We should start by asking what this means. It is quite different from bringing art to all Americans, the larger NEA goal. Most Americans experience very little art, and bringing them more of it is a straightforward task, if not an easy one. In contrast, all Americans experience design every day, whether they like it or not, in the houses they occupy, the streets they walk on—or more likely drive on—the neighborhoods they inhabit, and the regions they commute across.

More often than not, these houses, streets, neighborhoods, and regions are not as well designed as they could be. Most new neighborhoods, to be blunt, are designed horribly. The good news is that the techniques of good design are now not only known, but generally accepted at the top of the planning, development, and homebuilding industries, and also by governments, at least in theory. The challenge is to turn that theory into practice—not just practice but the standard practice.

Do you have any specific projects in the works to achieve those aims?
In addition to general grant-making, the NEA has several “leadership initiatives” that I inherited, fantastic programs that I hope to reinvigorate. One is the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and the other is Your Town, which addresses many of the same issues in less urban areas. In a nutshell, these programs put community leaders together with designers to positively influence the shape of their environment. I think that both of these programs have the wherewithal to accomplish a lot of the change I am talking about. The relationships are established, the good will is there, and the audience is ready.

DPZ is seen as the premier firm promoting New Urbanism principles; one of the firm’s principals, Andres Duany, is the literal and spiritual godfather of the movement. 1) How will this NU lineage affect your principles and priorities in your NEA job, and 2) Will you continue to champion NU in your new position, or do you think it may take a backseat to other concerns?
The NU principles happen to be my principles, and one does not throw out one’s principles. However, one must make the distinction between principles and projects. The New Urbanists have a bad reputation among Modernists because many NU projects use traditional architecture, which is considered reactionary. In fact, it’s subversive: Traditional architecture is used to mask progressive social ideals that Modernism, by manifesting them, can sabotage. But there is nothing in the Charter of the New Urbanism that privileges any architectural style, and I would be very discouraged if my appointment were seen as anti-Modernist, or if the most progressive Modernists stopped applying for grants. My grant-making panels will continue the NEA tradition of diversity, and that includes philosophical diversity.

You are a planner at a moment in time when the U.S. Government is advocating less intervention in and regulation of business concerns, including land use and development. How will you approach and counter this proclivity?
Right now, I am trying to forget that I am a planner, as my responsibilities cross many scales, as I mentioned. But let me add that most of what was achieved by the New Urbanists was done without federal assistance. Good design pays, and the building professions know it. But they need successful examples to learn from, since they are risk-averse and do not easily abandon old practices. Working with the American Planning Association, the Urban Land Institute, and other organizations, we can identify and disseminate best practices that will give the private sector the confidence to do the right thing.

That said, I would argue that, whatever the federal influences may be, local governments are becoming more influential every day in the regulation of planning. Just ask any developer. That’s why the Mayors Institute and Your Town programs are so important. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley notes, accurately that he is the principal urban designer of his city, whether he wants to be or not. We have to continue enlightening public officials about the physical impacts of their policies.

The NU principles of walkability, denser layout, and mixed-income housing apply less to urban cores than to edge cities and suburbs. Yet, as part of your new position, you will be overseeing the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, which concentrates on urban concerns. Do you have any specific ideas about how to improve cities, be these ideas from a planning perspective or otherwise?
Forgive me for disagreeing, but the principles you describe are the very essence of good city design, particularly at the urban core. The New Urbanists are perhaps best known for applying these principles, leaned from urban cores, to other parts of the metropolis. But half of the work of DPZ and of the New Urbanists is in cities, and much of that is downtown. I personally worked on a good half-dozen downtown revitalization master plans while at DPZ, and I am hopeful that much of what I Iearned there can be used to benefit cities nationwide through the Mayors’ Institute.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors could benefit from an Urbanism 101 class, in which as many mayors as will listen are taught the basics of good design—the items you mention, plus mixed-use, the “24-hour city” concept, improving transit, form-based building codes, Main Street preservation, etc… I am working now to drum up support for such an event.

Finally, do you believe it is the duty of planning professionals to use planning to address and right social and economical inequalities? If so, could you elaborate on ways it could be done?
I believe this absolutely, but we are all chastened by the failure of past planners who, in the name of social justice, have proposed and built some truly unlivable environments. A good start is to consider the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. We must acknowledge and fight the ways that planning has actually created or exacerbated inequality. In the new suburbs, where kids can’t walk to activities, it’s usually the mom who becomes the soccer mom. And when jobs flee the city for cheaper land in the office park, the non-driving poor can’t get to work. Myron Orfield has demonstrated how the inner-city poor subsidize Minneapolis’ ex-urban expansion. These are inequalities caused by planning, and they pose a larger target for our efforts.

Categories: Planning

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