Hilda Enoch says now is the time for the city to get serious about making Lawrence much more pedestrian-friendly.
"It seems the time to strike is now when gas is $3 a gallon," Enoch said.
"People might be more willing to listen."
Ready or not, Lawrence residents are going to begin hearing a lot more about walkability and new ways to design neighborhoods and commercial centers. Enoch was one of about 40 people who attended a city study session Wednesday about New Urbanism, a planning concept that encourages building developments in an "old style" way that places more emphasis on pedestrians and less on the automobile.
City Commissioner Sue Hack - who is on a committee of planners, commissioners and residents studying the concept - said she would like to have a consultant hired by the end of the year to help the city create a new set of codes allowing New Urbanism development.
But first, Hack said, the community must become more comfortable with what New Urbanism means. She said her committee had plans to make presentations to key community groups to familiarize them with the concept.
"Our idea is to go on the road with this idea and try to put some of the people's fears to rest," Hack said. "We want to avoid the idea that this is something churning below the surface."
Hack said any New Urbanism code would be in addition to the city's current code, which allows for more traditional suburban development. In other words, the city wouldn't mandate that all new developments be built in a New Urbanism style.
"We want people to understand this is not about us saying we don't like big boxes or we don't like some other type of development," Hack said "This is about people having choices."
On Wednesday, commissioners, city staff members, developers and neighborhood representatives heard a presentation from Cliff Ellis, an assistant professor in urban planning at Kansas University. Ellis told audience members that key characteristics of New Urbanism included buildings that were oriented toward pedestrians, narrower streets that were part of a traditional grid system and a mix of uses in a neighborhood. That means single family homes, apartments, and retail and office uses could all be located in a single neighborhood.
New urbanism developments also tend to be much denser than traditional suburban neighborhoods. In some cases, New Urbanism projects could have three to four times the amount of homes on a single acre of property compared with a traditional suburban neighborhood.
City Commissioner David Schauner said that meant it was particularly important that the city understand the issue well. Dense neighborhoods that aren't planned properly could produce troubling results, he said.
"I'm in favor of going forward with this, but we have to think very hard about how we would actually implement it," Schauner said. "I think it could be a Trojan Horse for developers to achieve greater density than they could otherwise."
Reaction from audience members Wednesday was generally favorable. Bobbie Flory, executive director of the Lawrence Home Builders Assn., said her group's membership was open to the concept. Flory said she hoped that the city would scrutinize how New Urbanism could help address the issue of affordable housing. She also said it was key that the concept be voluntary rather than mandatory.
Melinda Henderson, a Lawrence resident who says she closely follows neighborhood issues, said she thought the idea could prove to be a way for developments to be more environmentally friendly. She also said design guidelines that generally come with New Urbanism projects could produce aesthetically pleasing developments.