El Paso Teaches New Urbanism to Architects, Engineers

Hoping to reinvent the sprawling city, El Paso officials decided to teach the development community the importance of new urbanism. Now, other cities are following in its footsteps.

For more than 50 years, developers and city officials in El Paso, Texas, worked from the same page when it came to designing and approving new commercial, institutional and residential developments. New buildings tended to be low-slung, sprawling complexes, designed to meet the needs of the automobile and not the city's residents. Every commercial building was surrounded by parking lots and kept firmly separate from residential areas -- the two linked only by roads and highways.

But that's changing. El Paso officials waht to reinvent the city by following the tenets of new urbanism, which means a greater emphasis on dense, walkable neighborhoods, mixed-use buildings that are street-oriented and more green spaces. But there was one big problem in making that change: The local development community and the architects were still designing the old-fashioned way.

A sort of tug of war developed between the two: The city rejected more and more projects, while the development community pushed back, complaining that city officials weren't doing a good job communicating what it was they wanted. That's when El Paso's City Manager Joyce Wilson finally turned, exasperated, to her development director Mathew McElroy and asked, "How do we get to a place where everybody gets this?"

The answer: Develop a training program for both public officials and the private sector on new urbanism. McElroy had already taken an accreditation course from the Congress of New Urbanism
(CNU), an organization that promotes mixed-use and sustainable neighborhood development. The course, which was developed in partnership with the University of Miami, teaches the core principles of new urbanism, including the common language and best practices of urbanism, according to Abigail Bouzan-Kaloustian, CNU's administration and finance director.

El Paso ended up offering a nine-week session on new urbanism to its department heads and engineers, and has since opened the course up to the private sector. The city has also started requiring that any design firm that wants to do capital work with the city has to have someone on the team accredited in new urbanism practices. According to McElroy, approximately 100 city staff and 100 private architects and engineers have taken the course and passed the accreditation exam.

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Today, El Paso is fielding multiple requests from other cities to "come in and teach new urbanism," says McElroy, who plans to run a three-day intensive session in Austin soon. And in January, McElroy will run a similar session for 40 to 50 government workers in Oklahoma City.

CNU isn't the only organization offering courses on new urbanism. There's the National Charrette Institute, which teaches project managers how to run a collaborative, public design process that incorporates sustainability, regional planning and transportation planning. Director Bill Lennertz describes the program as a "delivery system" for urban planners and designers who want to break away from today's suburban sprawl approach to planning. Another organization known as the Placemakers offers online discussions, webinars and training around new urbanism for "urban designers, architects, civic boosters, enviros, developers, politicos, city staffers, preservationists and community activists."

The accreditation program that is run by CNU, like new urbanism itself, is relatively new. Besides teaching about the language and best practices, the course covers everything from the main principles of new urbanism to the details of street design that incorporate complete, sustainable streets, according to Bouzan-Kaloustian. She described the program as scalable, so it can handle the training needs of small, medium and large cities.

For El Paso, the impact of new urbanism training has been dramatic. Where once the development and architectural community "just didn't get it," according to McElroy, it now really pushes "the quality of design quite a bit." Design quality has become the focus for not just better designed corner street stores, but also for a number of large-scale projects the city is funding, including a new museum, arena, ballpark, cultural center and parks.

The result, says McElroy, is that new urbanism concepts have become institutionalized. El Paso now has a design review commission, something that wouldn't have existed a few years ago. "Design has become such a focal point," he says.

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.