It’s a brisk fall evening after a Kansas State University football game when Jeff Sackrider decides to grab pizza at The Hi Lo, and it takes him less than 60 seconds to arrive there from his Aggieville apartment. The restaurant buzzes with post-game chatter as the smell of comfort food fills the air. An employee props the door open to let in the cool air. In a booth along the wall, Sackrider, Wamego, Kansas native, recalls what led him to live in Aggieville: his discovery of urban living while in the East Coast. “When I moved to the D.C.-area a few years ago, I didn’t need a car to do anything. It was great. In the apartment I lived in, there was a sense of community. I had a Starbucks downstairs, and there was also a pizza shop in our building. I could get it delivered whenever I wanted,” he says. “I loved not having to drive places and having everything right there.”
When he decided to return to Manhattan three years later, Sackrider’s experience on the East Coast fundamentally altered his values; he just didn’t realize it right away. “When I moved back to Manhattan, I bought a big house on the west side of town. But if I wanted to meet a friend for pizza, I would have to drive quite a ways, find a place to park and walk in, and it was a whole ordeal.” He remembered the ease of access to great food, shopping and public transportation from his experience in Washington DC, and he decided to move back to a more urban environment. “I realized I don’t need 3,000 square feet.” That’s when he found his current Aggieville apartment.
“I like the sense of community down here,” Sackrider says, waving a hand toward Moro outside the open restaurant door. “I visit the same two coffee shops and my friends are there. I walk down the street and people know me. This morning I wanted something sweet, so I walked down to Varsity Donuts.” He smiles, leaning back in his seat. “The bus stop and the park are right there. I like everything that’s available down here.”
Sackrider represents a growing number of millennials and Generation Zers who are opting for life in a place where they can live, work and play. Although he had never heard of the concept, Sackrider references the values of New Urbanism with stunning accuracy. According to NewUrbanism.org, “New Urbanism promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities. These contain housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other.”
New Urbanism could be viewed as reactionary, a young people’s solution to the purported blight of suburban sprawl millennials love to hate. But for Generation Z, a young and pragmatic population concerned with connection and caring for the environment, New Urbanism and its values are a solution to social disconnection and the historic misuse of ecological resources they desire to preserve.
While the language of urbanism may appear as an assortment of trending buzzwords, the purpose and aesthetic feel familiar, taking a not-so-subtle page from time-worn, European city layouts in which people live, work and play, moving freely without vehicles by walking, biking or taking public transit. While the original design of these city compositions may have been nothing more than utilitarian, the fact that most of them stand the test of centuries reveals the sustainable quality of their design and function. New Urbanism appears to look back and learn from these city planning success stories, observing the ways in which the design serves to assure social connection and facilitate ease of use and movement while minimizing overuse of ecological and energy resources.
‘New Urbanism’ isn’t New in Manhattan
In 2005, when the term New Urbanism was still in its infancy and nowhere near the Midwest, Manhattan implemented a forward-thinking city planning ordinance addressing new development east of the Kansas State University campus and City Park, titled the Traditional Neighborhood Overlay (TNO). Nearly 10 years later, city planner Ben Chmiel graduated from Kansas State University and took a job with the City of Manhattan and set to work understanding the ordinance and ensuring its implementation. However, with various developers and design proposals for building in the east campus area at the time, the initial language and orientation of the overlay appeared to focus on preservation rather than new development. “The Traditional Neighborhood Overlay addresses design compatibility issues, as well as form-based regulations for development in those areas, ensuring materials, windows, arch features and roof pitches are compatible with historic fabric of those neighborhoods,” Chmiel notes.
With the help of Chmiel and other city planners, the East Campus and East Park neighborhood aesthetics and design intentions are being preserved. Yet Chmiel knows the TNO offers more than simple guidelines for building and maintenance. New Urbanism promotes a multi-layered approach to design and planning, taking into consideration human needs and ecological conservation, utilizing existing infrastructure and encouraging cohesive aesthetics. Viewed through the lens of New Urbanism principles, the TNO provides one of several important tools for returning to human-centered design while utilizing much of what is already in place. “We implemented new design regulations for the possibility of modern buildings in traditional neighborhoods to create a cohesive aesthetic and preserve the pedestrian realm of the street by reducing pavement,” Chmiel says.
As Sackrider notes in his booth at The Hi Lo, his apartment and other living spaces near City Park and K-State’s campus are only a short walk to shopping and nightlife in Downtown and Aggieville, as well as grocery stores in the Manhattan Marketplace. In many ways, the design and function of these neighborhoods closely mirrors the New Urbanist goals of pedestrian-centric, multi-use design.
These traits are highly desirable to potential renters, according to a 2015 study on renter preferences by the National Multifamily Housing Council. The study notes, “Apartment renters have strong opinions about whether regular neighborhood destinations need to be within walking or driving distance. Residents prefer that grocery stores, restaurants, bars and public transit be within walking range. Conversely, renters place less importance on immediate proximity to work and office destinations, but these locations must be within a short drive from the apartment.”
Chmiel, a resident of West Park, connects with the values voiced by today’s young workforce, including the preference for walkability. He bikes to work daily and designed his life based on these transportation preferences. “We have one car,” Chmiel says, “And one of us will always have to live close to work. As a whole, younger generations don’t want to own cars as much as previous generations.”
Making the Shift
While the bones of the time-tested, New Urbanist principles stand firmly in place in Manhattan’s Downtown Core neighborhood, key elements are missing to achieve the true function of urbanism. City planners like Chmiel see this potential and are collaborating with community partners to preserve and restore proven, sustainable community design, starting with these neighborhoods.
“How do we capitalize on the existing infrastructure and reduce sprawl, which is not ecological or sustainable?” Chimel muses, “We’ve been able to capitalize on initiatives like the Aggieville Community Vision and the Urban Core Residential District while updating our downtown plan, which will hopefully happen next year, all which incorporate multi-use development and utilize existing infrastructure. There is a niche development community here who sees where the market is going and what is going to be financially sustainable for them.” He adds, “When an apartment goes in Aggieville, one significant benefit is that we don’t have to do specials on any of those projects.”
Chmiel reflects on one aspect of the original design of the downtown neighborhoods: the simple grid system of home lots and streets. “The grid system is extremely pedestrian-friendly because when it was designed that was the mode of transportation. After World War II, the car allowed people to travel, but it also pulled things apart and, in some ways, created more disconnection. Since then, there’s been some backlash against the car-centric culture that took off and we’ve begun to realize the benefits of a small-scale, urban environment where you can easily walk and bike, with older historic structures that create a sense of place and spark imagination.”
For Chmiel, developing a New Urbanism environment has significantly less to do with design and trends and more to do with long-range planning, his professional role and sustainability. “It took 100 years to fill up that original grid of homes and streets downtown, but we built out the rest of the town in the last 60 years. The amount of infrastructure we’ve created for fewer and fewer people is unsustainable to maintain.” Chmiel warns, “Cities around the United States are hitting a tipping point where they cannot keep up with the infrastructure maintenance. We are relatively dense so we may stave off that pinch, but the lifecycle for concrete and asphalt is 20-30 years, and it would be financially devastating to have to replace large amounts of it all at once.”
The solution of addressing the self-made hardship of infrastructure maintenance is multi-faceted for city planners like Chmiel. “City planning for the last couple decades has been about pulling our cities back to a more sustainable practice, but we’re having to adapt to poor planning for the few decades prior. Cities are trying to create incentives for density to curb sprawl and be more efficient with our land use.”
Building development in the form of density on existing infrastructure is not the only piece of the puzzle. Improving ease of use for alternative forms of transportation that lighten the burden on current roads and bridges, such as bicycles and pedestrian traffic, also contributes to improvements to the current system. The city’s 20-year Bicycle-Pedestrian Systems Plan addresses this by outlining completed bicycle routes and identifies key potential connections around the city to improve flow for those traveling without a vehicle. The value of developing roadways friendly to active transportation is catching on in Manhattan, but with the mass focus of funding for road maintenance, the cost for these adjustments to infrastructure is a barrier.
Chmiel explains the multiple sources of funding the Bicycle-Pedestrian Systems Plan will utilize to become reality. These include the Sidewalk Gap Fund, which is responsible for funding gaps to existing sidewalks and creating connections between them, discretionary state funding for bicycle and pedestrian systems, and marginal dollars from the Community Development Block Grant. The city has also applied for additional grant dollars through the Kansas Department of Transportation, but the grant has not yet been awarded.
The expansion into suburbia with bedroom neighborhoods and minimal access to food, entertainment, services and gathering spaces may be reaching the end of its era. Nevertheless, the task of maintaining what has been created is left to a new generation more interested in connection, sustainability and pragmatism. As New Urbanism seeks to right the wrongs of unsustainable design and return neighborhoods and cities to a more humanistic and connected way of life, the place to start in these downtown neighborhoods may be where the streets and neighbors already seem to know the way.
Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.