Santana Row in San José, CA. Courtesy of SB Architects.

The Next Generation of Community Building: A Conversation with Real Estate Strategist Matt Shannon

By Chris Neil

If New Urbanism can be summed up in one sentence, it might be defined as urban design that makes walking feasible and enjoyable for many daily needs, rather than forcing reliance on the car. It is a planning and development approach focused on walkable communities formed from dynamic mixed-use neighborhoods, promoting human interaction and vibrant public spaces. New Urbanists apply this technique to a variety of smart growth opportunities including new development, infill, preservation, and revitalization.

Cities are changing, and the way we plan our cities for the future must adapt to the evolving ways humans are interacting with the built environment. Los Angeles, a city built around the automobile, has entered into an urban renaissance. Public transportation and pedestrian-friendly developments are leading the charge, transforming the region with multimodal mobility options and a physical environment that prioritizes humans on foot over those in vehicles. These are exciting times for Southern California, but as our region grows and development continues, we need to ensure what is built is truly authentic and contributes to vibrant, livable places for the future.

Consensus’ mission is to create a world where vibrant communities and developers engage meaningfully to build a positive future for our neighborhoods. With cities evolving, it is now more important than ever to look at development in a holistic and authentic way. Engaging communities on this next generation of community building will improve the built environment and livability of our cities and region for the future.

We sat down with Matt Shannon, a friend and colleague, to learn more about his views on New Urbanism and the next generation of authentic placemaking. Matt is a redevelopment planning and implementation strategist with a background in leading-edge urban planning and development projects spanning both the private and public sectors.

Aliso Viejo Town Center Revitalization Plan

Consensus: New Urbanism expanded the ways for building communities around development projects, giving them special characteristics. What are some key factors in urban planning that contribute to positive community development and livability?

Matt Shannon: One of the dominant priorities in urban planning in the 1950s to the present has been ensuring that the movement of cars was handled as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, this narrow focus in combination with flawed Euclidean Zoning (segregation of uses) has led to communities that are not walkable for daily needs. The New Urbanist planning approach is to focus equally on pedestrian and vehicular functionality, with an emphasis on pedestrian enjoyment. Simply building sidewalks does not mean you have a walkable community. But if you arrange the varied uses — residential, retail, office, hotel, civic, etc. — in a way that ensures suitable proximities and building forms that delineate the public realm with interesting architecture, you can create a very pedestrian-friendly environment that supports both functional and recreational walkability. Functional walkability usually exists in the older sections of cities, and in smartly designed newer cities, and it is very compelling to people of all ages. Walking more is healthy and facilitates the formation of neighborhood and community bonds.

Consensus: As new development projects are constructed in cities, some people enjoy the modern architecture while others express nostalgia for the older styles. What factors contribute to authenticity in urbanism?

MS: Urbanism is an essential ingredient in the formation of urban places. The buildings should be situated at or near the sidewalk edge and shape the public realm, with parking in parallel at the curb (safety buffer for pedestrians) and in lots or structures behind the buildings. A diversity of architectural styles in a given area is common though not essential. The abundant presence of interesting architectural details, including occasional idiosyncrasies, also helps. These elements plus a vertically integrated mix of uses, including the right tenant mix in the case of retail, can result in a great urban place that supports a vibrant and interesting pedestrian experience and that will be more enduring than typical single-use shopping centers.

Example of mixed-use planning. Credit: DPZ.

Consensus: Mixed-use development seems to be the current trend in city planning, but certain developers and cities seem to take different approaches. What do you think are the crucial factors needed in making sure future developments are smart, forward thinking and not just a fad?

MS: Whenever possible, developers should focus on creating a great, authentically urban street, and use the formation of excellent, pedestrian-scaled streets as the organizing mantra for their projects. Good urbanism enables walkability and will need to be present in the more-dense mixed-use areas. Such projects feature an inherent modularity and flexibility that make future intensifications easier than, say, a typical strip shopping center. Forest City has discovered this with their Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga; it is built on an urban grid. Santana Row in San Jose features an even stronger sense of place thanks to its vertical mixing of uses. Great mixed-use places comprise one of the oldest forms of development, dating back many centuries, and modern-day projects can be incredibly enduring if done right. Urban Land Institute co-founder J.C. Nichols’ iconic Country Club Plaza in Kansas City is going strong 90+ years after it was built. Too-few of today’s developers build projects of this (admittedly complex) type, featuring this level of authenticity.

Consensus: It is vital for developers to understand their communities to ensure the success of their projects. What role does community outreach and engagement play into successful city planning and development?

MS: These days, there is an expectation in many communities that the municipality will make an effort to reach out to the public, particularly residents, and provide multiple opportunities for engagement and feedback. The responses received often are very helpful to the planning process. But it is important these processes include planning professionals with robust expertise in crafting great places, and an educational component, however subtle. Well-executed New Urban-type places are highly compelling to people of all ages, and hundreds have been built around the country, though relatively few in Southern California.

iheartBurbank project.

Consensus: What drew you to urbanism and what keeps you passionate?

MS: I grew up in suburbia, and I recognized that DPZ [the firm Shannon later worked for] was onto something big that could improve people’s quality of life when one of DPZ’s projects received special recognition by Time magazine. Since then, it has become clear to many that so-called “New Urbanism” planning and development principles, most of which are historically derived and are quite pragmatic, have enormous relevance and potential in most markets and locations in the U.S. and overseas. Millennials love New Urbanism, and the relative lack of urban stimulation and associated factors in Orange County is contributing to the departure of many of this key workforce segment from OC.

Consensus: As you reflect on community building and the future of mobility, what are some ideas to keep in mind?

MS: One, remember that there is a difference between recreational and functional walkability. Two, urbanism enables functional walkability, which is the authentic version of walkability that is most coveted in our excessively auto-dependent world (visit to compare places). Three, as we know, the frequently bewildering millennials crave cars less than prior generations, but they want places that incorporate functional walkability and associated elements (urban vibe, more housing options, more transportation options) even more than prior generations. Four, if you are a developer or planner, focus on the creation of a great street whenever possible, and study the best urban-form mixed-use developments and districts to learn from them. There is huge unmet demand for more such places in many markets.

Matt Shannon is a Southern California-based redevelopment planning and implementation strategy consultant and a pioneer in New Urbanism. He is the Founder of Urbanus Group and has over 22 years of experience with the Urban Land Institute as a Member and Program Planner. Shannon has worked for several national developers including General Growth Properties, Trammell Crow Company, and Westinghouse Communities; as well as influential urban planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founders of the world class planning firm DPZ. For more, visit his LinkedIn.