Miami architect and planner Andres Duany learned how to subvert the rules when he mapped out Seaside, the neo-retro Florida beach town that brought walkable mixed-use neighborhoods — actually prohibited in most places by restrictive zoning codes — back into vogue, launching the influential New Urbanism movement.
Now, armed with a new $600,000 Knight Foundation grant, he's taking aim at a new target: the rising tide of bureaucracy and red tape that he says prevent young builders and entrepreneurs from starting up small-bore development and business enterprises to energize cities, towns and neighborhoods.
He's calling this NU outgrowth Lean Urbanism.
“It’s been a long time gestating,’’ Duany said in a phone interview from San Diego, where he was speaking at a small conference focused on Lean Urbanism. “To get a building built in a city is fantastically complicated. The codes are rigamarole. There is no way you can figure them out yourself. You have to hire lawyers and consultants. So the result is that everything is left to big corporations and big developers.’’
His prototypical examples: rules that prohibit baking and selling bread without a license and certified equipment, or that require someone looking to reuse a perfectly good old building to bring it up fully to modern codes, an often-prohibitive expense for an incipient entrepreneur. What usually happens instead, he said, is that the baker operates in the shadows, unable to expand the business, and the building stays empty.
The idea behind the three-year grant, which was announced Wednesday, is not wholesale reform, an impractical goal, Duany said. Instead, it’s to develop and disseminate strategies and tools to work around overly restrictive rules in a legal fashion, and lift the entry bar for Millenials and immigrants in particular, he said.
“They can’t get anything done,’’ he said. “A lot of young people today are becoming artists because art is one of the few things you can make and sell without a license.’’
The Miami-based Knight Foundation sees Lean Urbanism as a key piece in its strategy for fostering startups and an entrepreneurial “ecosystem’’ in its hometown and elsewhere. The grant will produce several pilot programs to put Duany’s strategy to the test.
“Andres is really fired up about making it easier for small actors to get in the game,’’ said Carol Coletta, the foundation’s vice president for community and national initiatives. “He’s serious, he’s rigorous, he’s passionate. I think it’s going to have a real impact.’’
The firm that Duany runs with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, helped spearhead a revival of compact, pedestrian-friendly towns and urban neighborhoods that mix homes with shops and offices. That traditional approach, which undergirds successful new city districts like Midtown Miami and Mary Brickell Village, had been effectively banned across the country by zoning rules that strictly separated residential and commercial uses.
The first year of the Knight grant program, which will be run by Duany’s nonprofit, the Little Havana-based Center for Applied Transect Studies, will be dedicated to research and development of strategies, Coletta said. The second year will see the launch of pilot projects, at least one of which Duany said will be in South Florida and “immigrant-focused.’’ The third year will be focused on rolling out the toolbook and publicizing the projects nationally, Coletta said.
One necessary aspect of the strategy, Duany said, is to get local governments to recognize the need to relax some rules within reasonable parameters to encourage the kind of ground-up redevelopment schemes that could turn around neighborhoods, but that banks and big developers won’t touch.
That’s already happening in distressed cities such as Detroit, where municipal rules and bureaucracy have receded to the point that young people are moving in and cheaply and creatively reviving some neighborhoods, Duany said. Not incidentally, Detroit was the location for a recent Lean Urbanism conference, and Duany extolled its promise as “the next Brookyln’’ on Fortune magazine’s website.
“We’re looking to stir up some trouble and get some attention on this,’’ Duany said.
Miami, too, is ripe for the strategy, he said. Overly restrictive regulations in the city have stymied small-scale efforts to revitalize poor neighborhoods such as West Coconut Grove and Little Havana even as big developers have dominated the city’s downtown revival, Duany said.
Even the simplified Miami 21 zoning code that his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, oversaw can be complicated for a novice to navigate in combination with building codes that must meet new international standards, as well as environmental and handicapped-access rules, he said.
“It’s no longer, let’s get a potbellied stove and put a curtain over the window,’’ he said, referring to young urban homesteaders. “We don’t know exactly where the balance is, but we can provide the patches and workarounds so that people can get to work.”