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Closer to Home

September 17, 2009
by Joan Voigt
architectural drawing

IMPACT: Main Street USA has been revived, only now it’s called the New Urbanism, and it is shaping new neighborhoods around the world as a friendly, walkable alternative to suburban sprawl. Visionary California architect Peter Calthorpe and a core of Berkeley professors decided in 1988 to push urban planning forward by looking backward. Their deceptively simple concept: neighborhoods made of a dense mix of homes, stores, cafes, and offices clustered around a train or bus station. As average commutes slowed to 10 mph, mixed-use transit neighborhoods have popped up in Dallas and Denver and spread across the Pacific to Asia and Australia. They’ve reshaped Pasadena, Burbank, Oakland, Sacramento, and smaller cities in between. Next up is New Orleans, and eventually China. The insidious strip mall, in fact, may fade to a memory. Berkeley architecture professors David Solomon and Harrison Fraker (the latter now dean of the College of Environmental Design) helped Calthorpe give birth to the idea with a series of workshops and the 1989 booklet, The Pedestrian Pocket Book: A New Suburban Design Strategy. In 1993, Calthorpe joined a nationwide group of planners and architects to form the influential Congress for the New Urbanism.

EUREKA MOMENT: Calthorpe was working on Sacramento’s light-rail system when he realized that to conserve energy you have to do more than fix buildings; you have to fix neighborhoods. “The railroad track was the logical place for new growth. The answer to sprawl was right in front of us,” he says.

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