The Planning Commission was determined to preserve a place worth caring about. By 1998, the Bay Area economy was heating up. Hercules’ time had come. More that 20 development proposals, most for the vacant central Hercules parcels, were on the table. The Planning Commission was feeling overwhelmed by an avalanche of large projects. Applications had to be processed, but there was no overall framework to assess the quality of proposals, or even to understand their cumulative impact. In the rush, there seemed to be no regard for the principles of good urban design that had informed the 1972 Hercules city plan.
What, then, was meant by "good urban design"? The Planning Commission took time in its regular meetings to hear speakers on the topic. Commissioners sought out workshops and presentations, and read books on current trends in urban design. The leading thinkers on the national scene had agreed on a set of principles calling for "The New Urbanism."
These principles, at the level of the neighborhood and town, seemed to speak directly to the challenges facing Hercules. The images were compelling: walkable streets, real civic spaces, buildings with doors and windows facing the street, automobiles served but kept in their place, vibrant retail streets bustling all day and all week, a variety of commercial uses, a wide selection of housing options.
Design matters, after all. More development does not necessarily mean less quality. It is the pattern of development that makes the difference between a good place and a bad place.
Hercules needed to seize control of the pattern of development. But how?
Land development, and the shaping of cities, is a joint public and private process. The public sector sets the rules, runs a fair process, and the private sector takes the financial risks and builds according to approved plans. Since World War II, development in suburban America has been governed mostly by mere zoning. Urban design is an afterthought, at best, when conventional zoning is the main tool for regulating development.
Zoning, by itself, is a crude classification system that strictly segregates the uses of land. The places to work, the places to shop, and the places to live are flung apart; people must rely on private automobiles to thread together the places needed every day, in the various parts of the city. At its heart, this "conventional suburban" pattern of development does not require any notion of urban design at all. There really is no intentional, active planning.
Another, "traditional neighborhood" pattern of development has been demonstrated recently with good success. Within the legal framework of zoning, traditional neighborhood development relies first on good urban design – that is, an actual plan for an intended future.
Good urban design principles are really what the New Urbanism is all about. Good urban designers can apply the time-tested ways of using available land, building streets, arranging buildings, providing public space, and yes, accommodating the automobile.