Exploring the Roots of New Urbanism

A new book by Rollins professor Bruce Stephenson spotlights John Nolen, the legendary landscape architect and city planner whose concepts are as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.

John Nolen’s 1910 plan for Madison, which he suggested could be a “model city” for
the United States. [Source: edgeeffects.net] John Nolen’s 1910 plan for Madison, which he suggested could be a “model city” for the United States. [Source: edgeeffects.net]

Have you ever stumbled upon a neighborhood where everything comes together just right?

Quaint homes accent walkable, tree-lined streets. Well-placed parks invite guests to stop and enjoy nature’s beauty.

Bruce Stephenson (Photo by Scott Cook) Bruce Stephenson (Photo by Scott Cook) I could live here, you think. There’s something about this place that’s so effortless, so tranquil.

Bruce Stephenson, professor of environmental studies at Rollins, knows the feeling all too well. In 1979, he had a similar experience upon moving to a historic neighborhood in Clearwater, not far from his employer, the Pinellas County Planning Department.

In his new book, John Nolen, Landscape Architect and City Planner, Stephenson introduces readers to the early 20th-century visionary whose pioneering work continues to inspire civic pride in communities across the nation.

“My job was challenging, and I liked to run to clear my mind,” Stephenson writes. “Clearwater was a scenic coastal town, but traffic and a dearth of sidewalks made for a series of dismal outings. My experience changed after I charted a course through Belleair, an attractive community set on an axial grid with a bayfront park, wide sidewalks, small greens, historic homes, and street trees. Over the next few months, my evening run restored my faith in city planning—quality human-scale design could enlighten daily life. I did not learn until much later, however, that John Nolen designed Belleair at the zenith of his career. My faith in planning owes a debt to Nolen.”

Who Was John Nolen?

As Stephenson describes in his book, Nolen was one of the first practitioners to market the concept of comprehensive planning on a national scale. From 1908 until his death in 1937, he undertook dozens of projects in cities across the nation, including Savannah, Georgia; Madison, Wisconsin; San Diego; Roanoke, Virginia; and Mariemont, Ohio.
In the 1920s, Nolen expanded his practice to Florida, where—in addition to working in established locales like St. Petersburg, Tampa, Sarasota, and St. Augustine—he also planned from scratch the cities of Venice and Clewiston, and, of course, Stephenson’s beloved beachside community of Belleair.

John Nolen [Source: edgeeffects.net] John Nolen [Source: edgeeffects.net] Today, advocates of new urbanism trace many of their ideas to Nolen and his contemporaries.

“I’d like to think that we’re all city planners,” Stephenson says. “The Constitution gives us the right to property, which is key. But the flip side is, as we become more urban, we also have to ensure we have a quality community to live in. And that’s the thrust of my work.”

On September 29 at 7 p.m., Stephenson will deliver a lecture in the Galloway Room of Mills Memorial Hall titled John Nolen: Restoring the Lost Art of Town and City Planning. The event, free and open to the public, will explore Nolen’s career and how it has modern-day relevance for Winter Park’s visioning process.

Lessons from Portland

Since June, Stephenson has been on sabbatical in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon, conducting research for his upcoming book Stepping into Sustainability: Living New Urbanism. Sans car, he relies on public transportation, a bicycle, and his two feet to carry him from place to place across the city.

The Pearl District, Stephenson chronicles in his blog, has undergone significant urban renewal for the past 20 years. No longer “a decaying industrial district,” he writes, the dense, transit-oriented neighborhood now features a 95 walk score, mixed-use development, farm-to-table restaurants, and omnipresent green enclaves, making it “a prototype for the future.”

Stephenson, who lives in Baldwin Park and has taught at Rollins since 1988, sees direct applications for Central Florida.

“Two years ago, I got appointed to Mayor Buddy Dyer’s sustainability task force,” Stephenson says. “In the first meeting, he said he wanted Orlando to become the Portland of the Southeast, with a focus on six areas: livability, mobility, local food, green economy, energy-efficiency, and water conservation.”

“That’s going to be the barometer for the future of Orlando, especially when it comes to building the Creative Village downtown and ongoing transformation efforts in organic neighborhoods like Audubon Park, where there’s a long history and a sense that people really live in a special place.”