Interview with Andrés Duany
Interview by Galina Tachieva
About Architect and Town Planner Andrés DuanyAndrés Duany is a founding principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). DPZ is widely recognized as a leader of the New Urbanism, an international movement that seeks to end suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment. In the years since the firm first received recognition for the design of Seaside, Florida, in 1980, DPZ has designed and built hundreds of successful new towns, suburban retrofits, regional plans, and downtown revitalization projects. This work has exerted a significant influence on the practice and direction of urban planning and development in the United States and abroad.
Andrés Duany has delivered hundreds of lectures and seminars, addressing architects, planning groups, university students, and the general public. His recent publications include The New Civic Art: The Elements of Town Planning, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, The Smart Growth Manual, and Garden Cities: The Theory and Practice of Agrarian Urbanism. He is a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, where he continues to serve on the Board of Directors. As DPZ’s principal in-charge of all Gulf Coast recovery initiatives, Andrés has directed charrettes for the Mississippi Governor’s Commission on Recovery and Renewal, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the Unified New Orleans Plan, and most recently the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative.
Andrés received his undergraduate degree in architecture and urban planning from Princeton University, and a master’s degree from the Yale School of Architecture. He has been awarded several honorary doctorates, the Brandeis Award for Architecture, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Medal of Architecture from the University of Virginia, the Vincent J. Scully Prize for exemplary practice and scholarship in architecture and urban design from the National Building Museum, the Seaside Prize for contributions to community planning and design from the Seaside Institute, and the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for exemplary work in keeping with the principles of classicism, including sensitivity to the historic continuum, the fostering of community, and the impact to the built and natural environment in contemporary contexts.
Galina Tachieva: Can you summarize the big topics that are on your mind today? What about some short-term actions we can take as urban thinkers and doers?
Andrés Duany: We at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company have been engaging many of those topics, and are in the midst of writing a book to be called Lean Urbanism. Big things changed on a permanent basis around the 2007 meltdown; many of the false premises that guided American urban planning seem almost comical today, while, in fact, in the past they had the dignity of seeming tragic. One of the most interesting topics is identifying another set of appropriate models. Our current thesis is studying the great American continental expansion of the latter half of the 19th century, when thousands of towns and cities were founded in the absence of financing. We must understand what allowed that and what makes it seem impossible today. Among the constituent elements are a very light hand of government and, often, management genius—as well as normative patterns like the continental survey, the town grid, etc. But the key element is successional urbanism. Start small at the inauguration, and later build well, culminating in the climax condition of the magnificent cities of the 1920s. By contrast, for the past 15 years or so, planners have been going straight to the climax condition, bypassing the inaugural condition and successional stages of urban molting. We need to develop protocols for every level—financial, administrative, and cultural—that will allow successional planning to occur again. Those are the big things.
Some of the small things, then: I am fascinated by the potential of large and small blocks to allow decisions subsequent to those by the planner. In other words, questioning the orthodoxy that the small block is always better. It is exciting that since the meltdown, there is an open window to question, not just the orthodoxies of sprawl, but also the orthodoxies of New Urbanism.
Galina Tachieva: Why is it important to talk about and further develop Lean Urbanism?
Andrés Duany: Some of the conditions we find ourselves in are permanent. Even when the effects of the real estate bubble are overcome, what is revealed is an underlying impoverishment. We are no longer the fantastically wealthy nation that we had been since the Second World War, in which we could implement simpleminded ideas and then proceed to mitigate them by throwing money at them. The primary wasteful idea is the building of very high-grade highway infrastructure, not just for inter-city commerce, but also for securing quite ordinary things. Taking an arterial to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks is now conventional. This posits an urbanism in which it is assumed every adult will purchase a car because it is a prerequisite for a viable social and economic life. This is an astoundingly profligate conceit, and one quite unfair to the 50 percent or so Americans who don’t drive because they are too young, too old, or too poor to have access to a car. We can no longer even pretend to afford that kind of thing.
Galina Tachieva: You are working currently on a multi-volume treatise called Heterodoxia Architectonica. What is its relevance to urban planning theory and practice?
Andrés Duany: Heterodoxia is intended to be a hobby. Collecting the Classical Orders of the last 300 years, recording them in plates, and developing a theory to explain them is, to me, the equivalent of becoming a birdwatcher or stamp collector. The analytical tools of architecture are applicable to both planning and studying architecture, but the intention is to avoid overlap. I will admit that in my work, I am unfortunately becoming rather fascinated by the whole field of classical architecture, and may cross the threshold from what is a hobby and enter the realm of professionalism.
Galina Tachieva: What do you see for the New Urbanism movement in the next decade or so?
Andrés Duany: The New Urbanism movement is now old enough to have a history. It has evolved as a result of external driving forces. The New Urbanism began as essentially market-oriented, when, after Seaside, it turned out many people wanted to live in walkable, diverse places and the developers were not yet providing them.
The second phase was when NIMBYism arose, like a storm, and people wanted no more of the traffic and imbecilic development. They could not precisely identify the problem, but instinctually hated it. The New Urbanism bonded with NIMBYism as part of the solution and not part of the problem as we, too, were critical of conventional development. Together with the public participation process, the principles of the CNU Charter provided an explanation for the failure of the promise of sprawl, and an alternative model, and it still does.
The third phase was driven by health concerns. It began with the scientific proof that the sedentary and socially isolated lifestyle required by sprawl caused problems for both physical and emotional health.
The fourth phase coincided with the emergence of environmentalism as the principal political movement of our time. The New Urbanism, with its compact, walkable, transit-ready patterns, is inherently sustainable, and integral to the environmental movement.
What the future holds is based on both the failure of the New Urbanism to become pervasive and the failure of environmentalism to succeed as it should have. Environmentalism is somehow always on the defensive. I believe this is because the environmental movement has only half of the tools—those of nature: preserving nature, restoring nature, the wetlands, forests, and so forth—while lacking the other half of the tools, which are the urban and cultural one that the New Urbanism offers. The entire Transect, from wilderness to urban core—from the Adirondack Parks to Manhattan, and everything in between—must be assessed for its environmental performance. I think the evolution of the New Urbanism lies in its absorption by the environmental movement and the imperatives of climate change.
Galina Tachieva: Are the Millennials as revolutionary in their thinking and doing of urbanism as they are claiming to be?
Andrés Duany: We don’t know enough about Millennials yet—whether their personalities have been permanently formed by their rather too benevolent parents, or by the biases and gaps in their education, or whether it is something intrinsic to the infinite Internet. We don’t know what the consequences will be of growing up with the endless and futile wars in the Middle East, the limits of the terrible recession, plus the stubborn inability of the baby boomers to cede power. We really don’t know what they are like yet. In my opinion, they are so far a little too polite, a little too tolerant, and entirely too allergic to becoming workaholics. The 60s hold lessons for them that they seem to acknowledge, but they miss the anger and the passion and, may I say, the sense of anarchism.
Galina Tachieva: What is your advice for young urban planners who want to devote their careers to the betterment of the built environment? Should they be optimistic or just learn other skills?
Andrés Duany: The best skills for an urban planner are difficult to learn from books and photographs, in the manner that architecture can be learned. Urbanism can be learned only by experiencing places, by visiting them and spending days there observing how people use their environments day and night, and then figuring out what makes things work.
This involves not just looking, but measuring and really thinking about, for example, work hours, locations of schools, and so on. The list of relevant factors is literally endless. There is nothing remotely as important as travel for an urban planner’s education. The only thing that needs to be learned is how to see—to really understand—not just look, and to be intelligently critical about what works and what doesn’t. One of the most disappointing things to me is the number of urbanists who admire a place like, say, Austin, confusing urban vitality with the existence of a hundred bars.
Going to planning school has been, until recently, a really dreadful idea. The most confused people I know are the middle-aged educated planners. It would be much better to have studied geography, which combines the natural with the social. Geography, that now very unfashionable subject, is the second-best education for a planner, after travel.
Galina Tachieva: You are a well-known skeptic about the efficacy of scientific data and metrics for changing human behavior toward more sustainable trends. What is it that will make people build and live in settlements that are good for the environment and humanity?
Andrés Duany: I am not a skeptic. I am skeptical of metrics as science. They are currently deployed as political tools to induce or persuade people of a desirable outcome. Metrics won’t help your planning—as they’ve become virtually relativistic today. You must have principles such as those of the CNU Charter or propositions such as models, like Portland, and then test them against the metrics.
Galina Tachieva: What’s next for Andrés Duany?
Andrés Duany: We’re busy with our nonprofit, the Center for Applied Transect Studies. We’re working on version 10 of the SmartCode. It’s a Transect-based model development code, free for municipalities or developers to download and calibrate, and v10 will be a significant update, incorporating what we’ve learned about coding over the last 10 years. We’ll have at least a draft of it to present at CNU in May.
We’re also finishing the production of a book to be called The Transect, a compilation of essays and images that will be the definitive resource on the Rural-to-Urban Transect. The essays cover the development of the theory and its application in practice, written by some of the foremost authorities in our field. It will also have an extensive, nearly comprehensive collection of Transect images drawn by many hands over the years, even predating the formal concept. We’ll include an image with this interview that’s a beautiful drawing by Eusebio Azcue—an eloquent illustration of several ideas related to the Transect. On one hand it shows examples of the six Transect zones, but at the same time it shows the successional nature of urbanism, as we discussed earlier. It also shows how the many elements of urbanism change over time and by T-Zone—not just building types, but also frontages, setbacks, thoroughfares, landscaping, fences, sidewalks, lighting. It even helps understand the typical size of the T-Zones. The perspective is from the same place in each panel, but as they progress the buildings narrow the view, so you see a smaller area. That’s accurate, because the more natural zones of T1 and T2 are usually much larger than the others. It really is an amazing image.
Header and home page image of New Town St. Charles, Missouri courtesy Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.