New Urbanist Pioneer
Peter Calthorpe, the 2006 winner of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, strives for model urbanist communities.
On what should have been a clear California day in the mid-1960s, 16-year-old Peter Calthorpe was sitting on a hilltop near his home in Palo Alto. His view of the neighborhoods below was completely locked by smog from automobile emissions. It was a seminal moment. That is when it hit him that something needed to change about the way his hometown—and a lot of other towns—were growing.
“Those were the days when subdivisions wiped out all the orchards where I grew up, and I realized that what was replacing them was not healthy,” recalls Calthorpe, now 57. “I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I wanted to do something.”
What began as a teenager’s passion to “save the environment” evolved into a 30-year career in urban planning and design, devoted to the creation of communities that are as easily negotiated on foot as by car, and that significantly improve the balance between land development and land preservation. Today, Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates, an architecture, urban design, and urban planning firm in Berkeley, is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most influential urban designers, improving the growth patterns of communities from coast to coast and overseas. And, with John Fregonese, his partner in Fregonese, Calthorpe and Associates in Portland, Oregon, he has pioneered the emerging field of regional design.
Since Calthorpe formed Calthorpe Associates in 1983, its work has expanded incrementally to include: more than 30 new community designs, among them Stapleton in Denver, Issaquah Highlands in the state of Washington, and Daybreak in Salt Lake City; countless urban revitalization plans, ranging from HOPE VI public housing projects in Chicago to a transit village in Richmond, California; 11 long-term regional plans such as Envision Utah, the COMPAS plan for Southern California, and Metro Vision 2040 in Portland, Oregon; and an increasing number of international plans, ranging from the Tunis waterfront to the rural lands of Rotterdam in The Netherlands.
In Calthorpe’s view, the business of urban design is the business of creating positive change. “My goal has been to work on projects that, in some serious way, lead to redirecting and repairing the missteps that we in design and development have made since World War II,” he says.
Although Calthorpe’s designs vary broadly according to a project’s size and type, all of them are rooted in four principles pertaining to the need for diversity, building to human scale, a focus on restoring and preserving buildings, and taking a regional perspective. He constantly weighs his idealistic desire to stay true to those principles against the extent to which they can be fulfilled with each project. But, as the development community has increased its overall acceptance of concentrated, mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian-oriented design, it has become less challenging for Calthorpe to apply his principles. “We can go a lot further [promoting them] today than we could 15 years ago,” he explains. “Developers are finding that design matters and that these principles work. Now, a lot of them understand how to create value out of building great human places.”
Calthorpe explains the four principles:
On diversity: “The more diverse, the more complex, the more layered a place is, the better it is. The more segregated, the more isolated, the more segmented a place becomes, the less viable it is.”
On human scale: “It’s a matter of walkability—of understanding how far a five-minute walk is, at what distance you can recognize someone on the street, of how to create environments for people who are moving at five miles per hour rather than 60.”
On restoration/preservation: “There is no blank slate. Everywhere you go, there is history—human and natural. Repairing damaged environments and restoring historic human environments has to be part [of design.] Rather than throw away culture, you have to preserve and enhance what is best in a place.”
On regionalism: “It’s one region against another around the globe. The region is the center stage where people act out their lives—economically, socially, and environmentally—yet, we lack a clear vision for our regions. We tend to let them grow by default, or by the sum total of piecemeal actions.”
These principles, says Calthorpe, provide direction and guidance. “For each project, I ask myself, ‘Is it diverse? Is it walkable? Does it restore and protect critical qualities? How does it interconnect and add to the region as a whole?’ Typically, I can find ways to answer each of these questions,” he comments.
This lifetime dedication to excellence in urban design has earned Calthorpe the 2006 Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. The $100,000 annual prize, which honors ULI founder and legendary Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols, recognizes an individual whose career demonstrates a commitment to the highest standards of responsible development. Calthorpe, the seventh recipient, is the first architect and first urban designer chosen as a prize laureate. The selection of Calthorpe as this year’s laureate honors the work “not only of those who do the developing, but of those who do the planning and who influence planning and development through their ideas and vision,” says 2006 Prize Jury Chairman A. Eugene Kohn, chairman of Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects in New York City. “His legacy is one that shows the value of planning cities in an intelligent way.”
Along with Kohn, other jury members were: Robert Campbell, architectural critic for the Boston Globe; Bonnie Fisher, principal, ROMA Design Group, San Francisco; Christopher B. Leinberger, founding partner of the Arcadia Land Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and director of a graduate real estate development program at the University of Michigan; and Jeremy Newsum, group chief executive of Grosvenor Estate in London.
As the prize winner, Calthorpe “represents an angle on urban development that often is overlooked,” adds jury member Newsum. “Those who plan the way cities should develop are often unsung, but vital to the process. He is at the forefront in a significant movement in redefining how urban areas should work.”
Says Calthorpe: “I started from a radical position and I’ve been lucky enough to take those ideas and make them concrete, make them implementable.”
His radical position—favoring compact, walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-accessible development—stemmed from a stint in the 1970s designing energy-efficient state government buildings in the administration of California Governor Jerry Brown. It was a departure from what Calthorpe had been learning at Yale University, where he cut short his architecture studies. Outside of professors like Vincent Scully (2003 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize laureate), David Sellers, and Charles Moore, who advocated a humanistic approach to architecture, others at the architecture school “were not teaching what I was interested in,” Calthorpe says.
“Much of it was focused on the building as an isolated object, and I still see this as a problem in the architectural world. The hyper-modernists see the building as a piece of sculpture that sits in the landscape, and not as part of the connective tissue that makes healthy cities and robust urban environments. There is a profound amount of modesty needed to design a building that is just part of the background, part of an urban space, and not an object of its own concern. . . . In my mind, much good architecture is craft, not art, and craft builds on tradition and is unique to each place.”
Upon leaving Yale, Calthorpe moved back to the West Coast after being recruited by architect Sim Van der Ryn to work as design director at the Farrollones Institute in the field of climate-responsive design. When Van der Ryn took the post as California state architect under Governor Brown, Calthorpe followed, applying his practice to the planning and construction of public buildings. “Features such as natural lighting, passive solar energy, and natural ventilation made for environmentally sound buildings, but how people got to the office became a bigger issue, one that opened the field of urban design for me,” Calthorpe says.
To encourage access by transit, rather than cars, he and his colleagues opted to omit parking lots from public building design, forcing people to use or at least consider other ways to get to work besides driving. (Today, the building in Berkeley in which Calthorpe’s office is located offers no on-site parking, but it provides lots of bike racks.) This “no parking” approach in Sacramento eventually led to the idea of transit-oriented development. “It became an interlocking set of issues, all with one fundamental premise, which is that people enjoy urban places and being connected to their history and their environment,” Calthorpe notes.
Not surprisingly, Calthorpe’s urban design concepts were viewed initially with much skepticism: he had the audacity to advocate breaking from the post–World War II pattern of sprawling development planned around suburban highway interchanges, and to pursue instead a pattern that more closely resembled pre–World War II layouts using public transit to link home, office, and recreation.
“At first, those ideas seemed utopian. I would hear ‘This is America, we’re going to have freeways, we’re going to have cars, we’re going to drive everywhere. Why should we walk places? We got past that sometime ago,’” recalls Calthorpe. “[But] in design, there are always fundamental shifts. There was [eventually] an increasing awareness about the environmental impact on our growth patterns; and about the lack of a sense of community, of place, and of character. People started searching for alternatives, and my work over the years has been to help create those alternatives.”
In addition to teaching urban planning and architecture at several universities, Calthorpe has written numerous books that track a clear progression. In the early 1980s, Sustainable Communities with Van der Ryn broadly outlined the environmental dimensions of urban design. In 1993, he introduced the concept of transit-oriented development and walkable communities in The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream; and, in 2001, he expanded this thinking to regional planning and urban revitalization with The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl.
“Peter’s combination of lightning-fast comprehension and speedy decisiveness gives him a confident, persuasive voice. He’s not the only advocate for compact, mixed-use, walkable urbanism, but he’s one of the most effective,” says Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.
Calthorpe’s understanding of the relationship between transportation and land use, combined with his expertise in regional-scale land planning and his passion for environmentalism, qualify him as “someone who has changed the world of land planning and development,” Kelbaugh adds.
His influence is clear at the Denver mixed-use community of Stapleton, one of the nation’s largest urban infill developments. When Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises was selected by the city of Denver to redevelop the former Stapleton Airport site, the company was charged with implementing the city’s plan to transform 4,700 acres of asphalt and concrete into an environmentally conscious, pedestrian-friendly community with ample green space. “Our challenge was to translate that concept into a physical plan, and what we had heard about Peter led us to him,” says Ronald Ratner, president of Forest City Residential Group. (Forest City and its cochairman, Albert B. Ratner, were joint recipients of the 2005 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.)
According to Ratner, Calthorpe’s expertise as a problem solver stems from his ability to think as a developer, an architect, an engineer, and a planner in order to fit all the pieces of a project together. “He has an amazing ability to deconstruct a problem, to get to the bottom of what people are saying. . . . Whether he is talking to traffic engineers or retailers, he extracts information and utilizes his principles to come up with a design solution. Peter is a craftsman at the top of his trade,” Ratner says.
“Urban design,” contends Calthorpe, “involves a nuanced set of tradeoffs. It involves a balance of design, economics, politics, and the marketplace; they are all integrated.”
Calthorpe has an unusually keen understanding of both the micro and the macro aspects of urban design, and can easily switch from one to the other, notes jury member Leinberger. “He looks at the entire place-making process with a holistic view that what you build fundamentally affects the region, the country, the entire economy. . . . He understands that it is the environment and the people in that environment that count,” Leinberger says. “He wants to know what the market is thinking, the political context, the desires of the landowners—he is capable of taking in a great amount of data and focusing it on a design solution.”
In The Regional City, Calthorpe and Fulton explain how regional-scale planning and design can integrate urban revitalization and suburban renewal into a coherent vision of metropolitan growth. Calthorpe has developed a regional visioning process that involves collecting an assortment of demographic, economic, and environmental data about the region, along with ideas from a broad cross section of stakeholders about future growth patterns. The data and the input from residents are combined into various scenarios, each of which reflects different choices for both governments and citizens. The public is then asked to choose the scenario it believes represents the best growth path for its region.
Calthorpe recently conducted regional visioning workshops in some communities along the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, which is still struggling to rebuild and bring back residents one year after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. Attendees “were willing to look at the whole picture of how the place should be rebuilt, and it was great to see people rise to that,” Calthorpe says. “People tend to make the right decisions when they think long term, and on a large scale. They sometimes make the wrong decisions when they think piecemeal. I help people reach their own decisions; it’s a healthy interaction,” he explains.
Perhaps one of the most widely acknowledged regional visioning successes is Envision Utah (a 2002 ULI Award for Excellence winner). The plan resulted from the Envision Utah Public/Private Partnership, formed in 1997 to guide the development of a high-quality growth strategy to protect Utah’s environment, economic strength, and quality of life for future generations. The organization enlisted Calthorpe and his partner John Fregonese to “help us optimize opportunities for the region and come up with a vision,” says Robert Grow, senior counsel at the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Salt Lake City and the founding member of the Envision Utah partnership.
“When you are going about your daily routine, you are experiencing a set of places, and Peter knows how to create places to make that routine more enjoyable. And, he has the capacity to see the big picture. Unless you understand the environment at a grand scale, you cannot design scenarios to pose choices the public will understand,” Grow says. Calthorpe’s ability to build consensus among people with diverse interests was a key factor behind Envision Utah’s broad acceptance, he notes.
Following his work on Envision Utah, Calthorpe was hired by Kennecott Land of Salt Lake City to design a plan for more than 90,000 acres it owns, much of it in Salt Lake County. This includes designing the first development in the massive landholding, Daybreak, which will cover 4,200 acres. Like Stapleton, Daybreak will offer full-scale variety in housing choices and a mix of uses, and it will be heavily oriented toward pedestrian and transit use. “Peter has strong opinions, but he understands that a developer has to be successful,” says Kennecott Land President Peter McMahon. “We have pushed back on some of his ideas if we don’t feel they are right, and he always works with us to get a good outcome.”
“If you look at things regionally,” says Calthorpe, “you can solve some of the problems at the scale of individual buildings or cities that seem intractable.” Urban design—whether at the neighborhood or regional level—is about collaboration, he adds. “Everything I do is built on the shoulders of other people, and is built on huge collaborations. My idea about design is to be as inclusive as possible, get as many ideas as possible on the table, and steal the best ones.”
According to Jonathan F.P. Rose, president of Jonathan Rose Companies in Katonah, New York, Calthorpe “knows how to use things he has already done and apply them to new projects. This serves him well, because he is always looking for something he has not done before.”
Rose has been Calthorpe’s client since 1984—the two have worked together on several projects, including a live/work community with artist studios in Santa Fe, and a “green” urban infill housing development in Denver. Rose also has a personal relationship with Calthorpe—he is married to Calthorpe’s sister. “Peter and I do disagree on some things,” says Rose, “and he loves a good discussion. If you engage him, he will dig in and engage back.”
His brother-in-law, says Rose, “taught me how to really see cities and urban spaces. ‘He said, when you walk in a city, don’t look at the sidewalks. Look up, not down. Look at the buildings, look at the people, look at what’s around you.’”
When Calthorpe looks at cities, he does not see grand designs, but evolving organisms that need room to grow and change. It’s clear that the opportunity to be part of that growth keeps him motivated. “I want to bring back a sense of humility to how we shape our communities,” he says. “I think people are desperate for a sense of community and place. When generic places are created, people are left with unconscious needs and wants—needs that can only be satisfied with more coherent communities. I think constantly about how to bring that about. You can be ideological about things, but if you cannot figure out a way to make them happen, all you’re doing, at best, is putting words on a page.”