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New Urbanism Revitalizes Main Street

Town Green Village, a New Urbanism project in Windsor, CA

Town Green Village, a New Urbanism project in Windsor, CA

Poor Gertrude Stein. She paid a visit to her old neighborhood in Oakland, California wanting to revive childhood memories of her hometown. Sadly, she found her family home gone and her old 'hood' much altered. So much so that she wrote, “There's no 'there' there.”

Many of us have had the same experience. Chrissie Hynde, vocalist and guitarist with the musical group, the Pretenders, did. In 1982, she wrote a song, My City is Gone, when she found the historic center of her hometown, Akron, had been replaced by high rise buildings and parking structures.

My City is Gone

I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone.

There was no train station.

There was no downtown.

It's sad when we find our old neighborhoods and favorite places have gone missing. Many Main Streets that were bustling have been drained by ebbing economic tides. Or business has been siphoned off by strip malls and shopping centers.

We can't go home again

Like Ms. Stein — and Chrissie Hynde — we, too, may find 'we can't go home again.'

Or can we?

Orrin Thiessen of Sonoma County, California thinks so. In fact, he knows so.  He's restored a sense of place to a handful of historic, but distressed, downtowns. Since 1993, this architect/builder (Thiessen Homes in Windsor, CA), has specialized in creating new downtowns for small towns in Northern California. Perfect work for a man whose college senior project was crafting a building out of recycled materials.

And if there's not much historic left — if the 'there' has departed or been bull-dozed — then Orrin's been known to use old photographs of former buildings to re-create the missing 'there.' And don't be misled by the word 'urbanism' because as Orrin's shown time after time, New Urbanism concepts work just fine in small towns, too. He's designed and built New Urbanism-style projects in Windsor, Graton, Occidental, and Forestville, CA. Every one of them small towns.

Several reasons influence the growing popularity of New Urbanism. As mentioned, it puts the 'there' back by focusing on building compact, walkable, mixed-use projects in cities and towns. The result satisfies people's hunger for community. And it uses resources wisely: New Urbanism is materials, land, and energy-efficient.

The founders of our small towns had it right

Orrin thinks his building style might more aptly be named, 'Old Urbanism.' Featuring mixed use, his projects combine retail and commercial spaces — just the way many of us remember when walkable Main Streets were the rule rather than the exception.

But whether you choose to call it new or old urbanism, one fact remains: the founders of our small towns had it right to begin with.

Author James Kunstler has said, “...there's a reason that Elm Street and Main Street resonate in our cultural memory. It's not because we're sentimental saps. It's because this pattern of human ecology produced places that worked wonderfully well, and which people deeply loved.”

Local store featuring Elvis stops dog walker in Swansboro, NC

Local store featuring Elvis attracts dog walker in Swansboro, NC

The walkable Main Street way of life is appealing because it's built on a human-scale.

Orrin notes, “We used to live and work in our downtowns. Many would live above their shops, or out back in a cottage. That's what mixed use is, really. It combines retail, commercial and residential.”

Maybe that's one reason New Urbanism projects tend to sell out quickly. A new generation of downtown dwellers and shop-keepers is springing up. Not too surprising. After enduring long drives and traffic snarls, commuting down a flight of stairs to work is a strong draw. There are numerous signs that our love affair with the car is starting to morph into a simpler life-style.

Orrin's been both recognized and praised — he's won the Association of Bay Area Government Award and been featured on the cover of Sierra Club's Smart Growth Magazine.

He's earned the recognition. Take the tiny town of Graton, CA (population 1668) in Orrin's neck of the woods. An old, historic apple cannery town, the village had seen better days. Graton's Main Street had been reduced to a couple of rough bars and a mini-mart. Other buildings stood boarded up, slowly decaying.

“The bars were places people went to get drunk. It was kind of a scary place,” says Orrin. Today, Graton sparkles. After a mixed-use development by Orrin, three popular eateries and a market are favorites of locals and travelers alike. The town's become a destination, not a place to be avoided.

Families gather for an Easter Egg Hunt in Town Green Village (Windsor, CA)

Families gather for an Easter Egg Hunt in Town Green Village (Windsor, CA)

The town of Windsor, CA (population 26,500) has another Thiessen mixed-use development on its town square. Residential and commercial condominiums designed with Spanish architecture and red tile roofs blend the new with the old. Townspeople love coming to the square for public gatherings and special events.

The future of development

Right now, there's more demand than availability of walkable, affordable housing. Home buyers are demonstrating with their dollars that they want to re-connect with neighborhoods, neighbors, and local shop-keepers.

A study conducted in August 2009 by Impresa, a consulting firm in Portland, Oregon, found that houses with above-average Walk Scores (see www.walkscore.com) commanded a premium as much as $30,000 over similar houses in low scoring walkable locations in cities like Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Sacramento and San Francisco.

People want to live close to amenities near their living space. Those fortunate enough to live in small towns with intact and walkable Main Streets know how joyful this way of living can be. We're social creatures. Pedestrian-friendly design leads to a sense of community.

For towns without viable Main Street centers, re-building the 'there' back there is a very real possibility. Mixed use New Urbanism projects put needed services within walking and cycling distance — just as our original Main Streets did.

Ready to explore New Urbanism for your community?

There are a growing number of architectural and building firms specializing in New Urbanism. Don't call Orrin, though. Orrin's turned down projects from afar. He wants to stay close to home and effect positive change where he lives. He “doesn't want to get too big.” Architects and builders in the New Urbanism style close to your hometown are likely to be just a Web search and email away. The Congress for the New Urbanism is a good place to start.

Your town can be as alive and vibrant as your will to make it so.

How New Urbanism Makes Sense

  • Citizens are hungry for walkable, pedestrian-friendly housing
  • Mixed use requires less infrastructure for roads, highways, parking lots, utilities
  • Keeps sprawl at bay; promotes walking and bicycling
  • Preserves more land for agriculture, open spaces and recreation
  • Is energy-efficient; conserves materials and resources
  • Mitigates run-off problems from large paved areas

How towns can attract and build New Urbanism projects

  • Have zoning that permits high-density, mixed use
  • Have funding sources available and willing to lend
  • Get citizens enthusiastic and on-board
  • Encourage re-development and in-fill in distressed areas
  • Use imagination for creative re-use of empty existing buildings

Editor's note: Special thanks to James Howard Kunstler (author of The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand: A Novel, among others) for his insights about New Urbanism. Look for our interview with Mr. Kunstler in an upcoming Vibrant Village issue.


Community by Design: New Urbanism for Suburbs and Small Communities.  Kenneth Hall & Gerald Porterfield.

Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature. Douglas Farr.

The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community. Peter Katz.

The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream.  Christopher B. Leinberger.

New Urbanism and Beyond: Designing Cities for the Future. Tigran Haas

New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide. Robert Steuteville, Philip Langdon & special contributors.


Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)

Smart Growth America

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1 Responses »

  1. A very nice article. I live in Sonoma county and I am very familiar with Orrin Thiessen's work. Just to clarify, Orrin has transformed Windsor & Graton and he is currently working on some fabulous (in my opinion) projects in Occidental, nothing has happened yet in Forestville. I have been very excited about Orrin's plans coming to life in Forestville but they seem to be on hold indefinitley for now. In Forestville there are many people for and many people against the plans but Orrin has been amazingly open and accessible to all throughout the process and that is rare in a developer.

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