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Planning the Perfect Place - From Scratch

November 28, 2011, 9am PST | Tim Halbur
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What would you do if you could start a city from scratch? Claude Lewenz has dedicated his life to creating the perfect blueprint for a "VillageTown", combining the correct scale to create communities that care with a scale that makes economic sense for a fulfilling life. Managing Editor Tim Halbur talks with Lewenz about his vision (part 1 of 2).

For the past half century we have been building communities for the wrong reasons. We built them to sell cars. This created all sorts of problems.

There is a better way, as relevant today as when first articulated by the ancients. We create a local economy that is self-supporting so that we may enjoy a good life, understood as the social pursuits of conviviality, citizenship, artistic, intellectual and spiritual growth.

-Claude Lewenz

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post bemoaning the lack of vision in today's developers, asking Planetizen readers " enlighten us and show us examples of great vision, new developments that are inspired and have heart." One reader from New Zealand wrote "take a look at this." He/she was right: The Village Town concept featured there is truly visionary, and is all the work of one man: Claude Lewenz. I called Lewenz up in his home base in New Zealand, where he is working to implement his Village Town concept. He talked my ear off for almost two hours, walking me through his thought process and years of development to create a model town that would encourage community and be self-sustaining.

TH: So how did you get started on this path?

LEWENZ: I grew up in Baltimore among people like the Rouses [James Rouse was a famed planner and developer] who invented cities, and Marty Millspaughwho was a journalist. They would sort of sit around the kitchen table saying, "Baltimore's a wreck, imagine what we could do with the harbor if we turned it into something completely different." A lot of people in Baltimore in the 1950s were very, very innovative. It's quite interesting how Maryland had probably some of the best and some of the worst real estate done. The Levitt town sprawl destroyed much of the Baltimore area, and yet had some of the most innovative stuff. I grew up with people who had good ideas and actually put them into practice and that was somewhat inspiring.

I also grew up in a community where we were allowed to run free. There was never this idea that you worried about your kids. When I came of age and started to looking for a community to a start a family in, they disappeared. Nobody noticed but they'd completely disappeared. That sense of community that I was looking for wasn't there.

But what was really pivotal was a dinner party that I attended on New Year's Eve.This was a dinner party of well educated, entitled people, the "comfortable class," as Bill Moyers called them. They were having one of these typical dinner parties conversations, lovely dinner table spread, the hostess having done a marvelous job. And they were talking about "them." And them sort of referred what one might call the underclass and all the problems of crime, the welfare system, poor education, and all the sorts of things people grouse about.

And the table was pretty evenly divided between the side that was saying, "If we'd fund programs, we could really make a difference here and change this stuff." And the other side of the table saying, "Nonsense, if we just enforced the law and kicked ass and didn't tolerate all this stuff we'd solve the problems." And I just looked at my watch and said there's no way we are going to get through to midnight here. This is the kind of conversation I moved to the West Coast to get away from.

So I just decided I would throw a little bomb in. and I said, "Well, what would happen if we use architecture and design so that the problems didn't grow, and eventually died out? That we actually use design rather than rules or rather than taxpayers' money or all this nonsense." Because it was a well-educated group they took the bite and it became an extremely stimulating conversation to the point the hostess was getting really nervous because parties are not supposed to be talking with any substance.

And about two weeks later, I got a phone call from Libby Rouse, Jim's first wife. She had heard about this dinner party conversation, and she said wanted me to come down and she pulled together 20 of the top urban planning types to come listen to me talk. Which was kind of interesting because at the time I was a guy in the computer software business. This was just dinner party talk. So I came down, and pretty much repeated my ideas, and it was a varied reception. Because what I found is that people who were professionals in the industry only want you to mirror their area of expertise.

Some people were enthusiastic, but after it was over Libby kept me there and she said, "Look, everything you talked about is what Jim and I wanted to do at Columbia, but we were pushing the boundaries even to do what we did. I want you to promise that you are actually going to do this and not just talk about it."

And that's how it started. I began work on it, then the '87 crash occurred and I shelved it. I secured funding to run a think tank for two years researching the idea. We concluded that at that time the United States was not ready.

In New Zealand, they have a set of laws that are written for innovation. The zoning law here is called the resource management act and it says its purpose is to "enable people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being while protecting and persevering the environment and the life giving forces of earth, water, sky, and ecosystems for now and for the foreseeable needs of future generations." That's the legal statement that everybody has to work under.

So we moved to New Zealand, to Waiheke Island. And our daughter was running free, and you don't lock your car or your house. So we came for that lifestyle, but we also came because I saw this was where I would be able to start this sort of thing.

TH: So what conclusions did your think tank reach?

LEWENZ: We asked people, "If you could have a really good life, what would it be like? What do you want, what do you need, what are your aspirations?" And out of that, a whole series of themes started emerging. And one of the thing we found out was that if you want to get authenticity and character so it doesn't look like Disneyland – have you seen Windsor, California for example?

TH: Yes, I use Windsor as an example frequently of poorly-implemented New Urbanist design.

LEWENZ: The problem with Windsor is first of all it looks like cartoon architecture. We concluded that it's important for the person who's going to live there to put their personality into their building. They're going to have a particular taste, and expressing that is important to the look and feel of the whole town. When we analyzed the beautiful, wonderful places in the world, we found that the patina of time wasn't important. It has value, certainly, and I don't want to discount it. However, it isn't the critical factor.

The critical factor was having the people who are going to live there do two things: First, define the look and feel of their community, which is the general architectural code. If you are going to have a timeless look to your community you certainly don't want some guy coming in and sticking a glass and steel pickle in the middle of it. On the other hand, if you have a community where everyone wants cutting-edge architecture, something that blows your socks off like the Bilbao Getty Museum, then that's great if everyone agrees.

That gives the boundary conditions for each person to tell the architect, or if they don't use an architect, to design their own home. If, for example you have an Italian village, its going to have muted pastel colors, a certain kind of full length doors for windows facing the front with balconies on it. It's going to have certain sounds, and looks, and feels, and noise, and all that kind of thing, which would be very, very different than if you had a village made by inventors and occupants who were focused on just inventing and developing, you know, the buzz you get from places like MIT and Stanford.

The other thing we found is that when a community gets over 150 people, people don't know each other anymore. Those natural support systems that exist in small communities don't exist in bigger ones. At the same time, if you have a community of 1,200 people you can only support one general store there. There simply is not the economic mix necessary to make it any more successful. You need 5-10,000 people to have a local economy. That's where this concept of village-town came from.

The VillageTown layout (click for a larger image)

When we started, we tried to come up with the best purpose statement we could, because when we started this we were using phrases like "quality of life," and "lifestyle," you know, the "buzz speak" of the planning industry. Really boring words! We just couldn't get it, until someone recommended I read Victor Papanek's book,The Green Imperative, and on page 105 I found the answer. Papanek quoted Aristotle, and he wrote that "when several villages come together to become self-supporting, the purpose of their continuance is to enable their people, their citizens, to enjoy a good life." And Papanek explained that a good life is understood as the social pursuits of conviviality, citizenship, artistic intellectual, and spiritual growth. He used slightly different words like "religion" instead of "spiritual growth," but when you look back at Aristotle, you realize what we today in our American context understand by the words "religion and politics" are not what Aristotle was talking about. The closest to what he was talking about to politics is citizenship, and religion is "spiritual growth."

So, we looked at those 6 elements. First, build the foundation of a local economy that is self-supporting or nearly so. Understanding that local economy in terms not of Ancient Greece, the city-state where it had its own money and it was its own army, but rather to create economies that are not so dependent on the ups and downs of how the stock markets doing, or the banking systems doing or other things. We're seeing the impoverishment of communities when places like Walmart moves in, and the entire downtown just folds. So creating a self-supporting economy is one in which you don't increase GDP, you increase wealth to a certain point, and once you've gotten to that point, you maintain the wealth. So that's the economic foundation.

Now, conviviality -- thats obvious, it's the cafe, its the tavern, its the bench just sitting there talking to people about sports. We then say, "Okay, that sounds good - how do you do that?" What we find is, I'm a big fan of cafe, tavern, "taberna" type lifestyle where, especially in Eurppe you go to a place and the food's inexpensive, fantastic tasting, and it isn't like going out to dine, where you have to spend $100 and can't do that very often.

What we realized is that we're paying up to 5 bucks for a cup of coffee here in New Zealand. The reason we are is because the rent is so high for these people owning cafes. So we worked it out and basically, for $4 a month, increase on your mortgage, if everybody in that village agrees to do it, we can actually build a cafe building. The stuff you rent, and then we can rent it to a cafe operator for $1 a year. And we say, "There are two conditions to keep this lease: the first is, your prices have to reflect that fact that you're not paying any rent. The second is, that it has to be really good coffee, or really good food. You get slack on it, and you'll lose the lease and we'll find somebody else."

At that point, I've just created 20 or 21 convivial centers in a community of 10,000 and made them economically viable. In fact, if the food's really good you're going to find some people who just simply don't cook at home anymore because they'll get excellent, much better food, precooked and its in a social environment where you go and sit down.

Here on Waiheke we have places with long tables, and they're very convivial. You sit down and you instantly strike up a conversation with people. Sometimes you end up having them over for a cup of coffee or a drink and become friends. So that convivial nature is funded by how we design the plaza.

Look for Part 2 of my interview with Claude Lewenz next week.

Tim Halbur is managing editor of Planetizen.

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