Mark HinshawA city planner, architect and journalist, Mark Hinshaw is the director of urban design for LMN Architects in Seattle. The American Planning Association recently published his book True Urbanism: Living In and Near the Center.

In True Urbanism, Hinshaw identifies a back-to-the-urban-core trend, in which people who have rejected suburban uniformity are choosing to live instead in dense, diverse urban environments. "After decades of decline," Hinshaw writes, "downtowns are coming back, perhaps with a vengeance. And it might also be that the very notion of what constitutes downtown is changing. Most of the downtowns we have examined have acquired, over the last six or seven years, a ring of dense urban neighborhoods in areas that previously were only underused commercial or industrial buildings or parking lots."

Hinshaw spoke with CP&DR Editor Paul Shigley in September.

CP&DR: What was the genesis of this book? Something in particular?

Hinshaw: I write extensively for Landscape Architecture magazine. Often, the editor sent me on assignment to other parts of the country. I've done that for the last 10 to 12 years. And then, with LNM Architects, I get sent on assignments that take me across the country. That has been frequent enough that I started to see things across the country.

At first I started thinking it was confined to coastal cities that are considered hip. Then I started seeing it in Dallas and Kansas City and Minneapolis.

CP&DR: Cities that are not considered hip?

Hinshaw: Yes. I've seen it commented on in real estate pages, but nobody's really commented on it from a national perspective.

Then just about the time I had the idea for the book, I happened to be on a panel with Eugenie Birch, the chair of the planning school at the University of Pennsylvania. She had received a grant to look at 44 downtowns around the country. She found that some of them were struggling, but she also found that dozens of them were thriving.

So I jumped on her few dozen examples. But I continue to see it cropping up. As I travel more, I see more and more of it. What she didn't identify is that this isn't just happening in big cities, but in inner suburbs and in smaller towns, stand alone towns.

Americans love small towns, and that's what the new urbanist group has latched onto. Americans love small towns with their small scale and narrow streets. … People know that what small towns often don't give them is access to lots of other things, not the least of which is well-paying jobs. So what people are trying to do is get the feeling of a small town that is housed in a much larger area.

So you have these very dense urban areas — they have parks and public spaces, they have a graciousness to the street and they take on a patina that comes over time. They have quirkiness and an unpredictability. People are not looking for sameness, they are looking for something different.

That's where I part company with the new urbanists. They are trying to create this out of whole cloth. I think you need an understory of things that give a place roots. I don't think you can invent that. I don't think that you can design it. It comes from the fact that a number of people get their hands on these places. That's where it becomes magic. You get these shared spaces, this collective attitude. It's not just you and a lot of other people living in an area. It's a shared history of the place. It's a richer array of things that results.

It's almost kind of weird because it's so scattered but it's almost spontaneous combustion. There's no school that's called this. It doesn't have a name. Yet it's happening in hundreds of places. Some of it is due to demographic forces that Eugenie identified. There is a whole group of people with disposable incomes who don't have children in the house anymore, and who don't want to live in a big house and mow the lawn. Instead of purchasing a big home, they are buying a neighborhood.

And then there is the other demographic — people in their 20s. They grew up in the suburbs and they don't like it. They want edgy. You can't find it in a new urbanist town. They are looking for a place where you can find 100 different things to do every night. … In the inner suburbs, you don't get that, but you get enough of it. It's the places where you get enough of the older style of living, combined with 21st Century access to goods, services and technologies. It's not like people are living in the past and wanting nostalgia. They want things that are real.

What's different about this phenomenon from the new urbanism is that folks who are choosing this are not afraid to live in towers as contemporary as possible. These folks want to live in the 21st Century. I'm talking 100 to 300 units an acre. It is not a fearful thing. The new urbanism seems to top out at about 4 stories. It's not a dense enough environment to support a lot of locally produced products and services, and transit.

CP&DR: Has the planning system caught up with this trend that you have identified?

Hinshaw: I think some places are skilled in their ability to help it happen in a good way. Neighborhoods I've observed around San Diego's downtown seem to have had a good hand. I'm not talking about a redevelopment authority that sweeps in with a master plan, but a way for people to engage. You are not looking for consistency or uniformity, but the exact opposite. What is sought after is variety. It's not uniform housing block after block. There can be two-story buildings next to 30-story buildings. It's not a simple model. I'm not suggesting everybody wants that. But enough people do that it's fueling whole new neighborhoods that didn't exist 10 years ago. They existed only as industrial areas or gray area.

CP&DR: You use a number of case studies and examples from California – San Diego, Long Beach, Oakland, others. Where is our state on the trendline?

Hinshaw: It's certainly happening in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco. All of those cities have been pretty aggressive about using various tools. It's been pretty rare that it's been a traditional master plan that's done it. It's been specific developments or it's been investment in public spaces, like the Esplanade in San Diego, which spurred tremendous private development. Everyone does it a little differently. Some are using tax increment financing and some are not. Some are using redevelopment and some are not. Sometimes nonprofits make a big difference. The techniques are all over the board.

CP&DR: What can a planner learn from these cities?

Hinshaw: One singular modal doesn't make sense. That's why I'm not a fan of form-based codes. I think that's a singular model. People need to sit down, come up with what they want to see, and then tailor it to their particular city.

It baffles me that people spend so much time on their general plans and specific plans and then use generic regulatory tools. You need to sit down and figure out the best for your situation. It's not following somebody else's template.

CP&DR: What has the response of practitioners been? Any of them tell you that you're wrong?

Hinshaw: The only thing that I've seen that was sort of a cut was in New Urban News. I don't disagree with most of what they have to say. It just seems like that [new urbanist techniques] is the answer to everything now. I think we learned 30 years ago that sweeping pronouncements don't work.

Some people have asked me a question — will this last long? And that's a good question. My response is that I think we're just seeing the tip of the phenomenon. One of the groups fueling this is the baby boom, which is just beginning to retire. So this could be a 20- to 30-year phenomenon.