An Interview with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

Originally published by Miami New Times Jan 15, 2004
©2004 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Shape of New Things
A leader in New Urbanism talks us through Miami’s high and low spots


Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is an important player in the shaping of urban Miami. She’s one of the founders of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company, Architects and Town Planners (DPZ), a leader in the national movement called New Urbanism. DPZ has received numerous awards, including two State of Florida Governor’s Urban Design Awards for Excellence. In addition Plater-Zyberk is dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, where she has taught since 1979.

New Times: What is your opinion of the general landscape of Miami?

Plater-Zyberk : This is a time of great opportunity in Miami to change things through building. Except for a few places [like] Coral Gables, Miami Springs, and Miami Beach, in most areas building was a response to the market — it’s like a lot of America’s landscape. It’s part of our tradition … it’s generic and our development reflects this character.

Do you believe we can alter the environment through planning and architecture to create a more meaningful place?

Obviously I believe so because I’m an architect and one who began building one building at a time, building something that gives pleasure and enhances the habitat and can become economically sustainable. And people are constantly interested in moving to Miami — we have an opportunity that we shouldn’t waste.

There are three players who can make a place wonderful or destroy it. They are the public sector, which builds a few buildings only; the not-for-profit sector, which builds housing and universities; and the private sector, which carries the rest. The public sector also provides the public places, such as the streets. You have DOT [Department of Transportation] that is concerned with the flow of people; others with zoning codes. See it as the public sector that makes the horizontal floor, and the private sector that makes the walls. The ideal is to have all these parties work together.

What’s the present dynamic among these players? How can you get them all going in the same direction?

There’s a regulatory framework nowadays; zoning codes and urban design rules are made in public, so the private sector has plenty of input, as does the public and the not-for-profit sectors … but I must say it’s very complex. It wasn’t always like that. After World War II the public and the private realm thought they were doing different things. For instance DOT thought it was doing traffic only, just getting cars through; the people making the buildings had a different vision. Each player was doing its own thing; they didn’t see it as a whole.

Can you think of an example of this in Miami?

Sure, the way SW Eighth Street was remade 25 years ago. As the city grew it was determined that [the street] needed to move people, and it was changed into a one-way to help traffic get into the city. It stopped being a place to come and became instead a place to go through. It has repercussions for the street as such. For the people living there it was still a main street, but for [others] Eighth Street is a one-way artery, and it’s kind of a schizophrenic piece of the city.

This is a good place to define what New Urbanism is.

After World War II we grew in ways we didn’t anticipate. Prosperity and a particular vision brought us cars, metropolitan growth, roads, highways … we ended [up] being overgrown. Now we have to think how to cope with that and come up with alternatives to make a different, more sustainable, and environmentally attractive metropolis. It turns out there were some people in different disciplines, not only architects, but planners, attorneys, engineers, landscape architects, city majors that were already working on pieces of this alternative. So we formed a congress for the New Urbanism …

One of the problems of Modernism was its elitism. Is New Urbanism for a participatory input in the design process?

Yes, we are; it’s even part of our charter. Something we understood quite early is that this movement wanted to change things, but it needed to be inclusive to be successful. And at this point New Urbanism is a force — we’ve helped spawn similar organizations in several parts of the world. We meet once a year and work on initiatives that are intended to educate or change policy.

How do you cope with suburban sprawl?

Suburban sprawl and urban divestments go hand in hand. Because most places have grown [out] into the suburbs, there’s a greater land usage in ratio per person than ever before. And people that moved out left others behind. So there are not only environmental issues, but also social problems of isolation and segregation … that growth has become very expensive.

New Urbanism promotes a program of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly streets, accessible public and civic institutions, and a landscape that reflects local history and climate …

It’s about walkability. We don’t walk anymore. We need to make places where people want to walk.

Some of your critics have suggested that New Urbanism is basically against the car; that as much as we may hate its excess, it’s here to stay. Is being for walking being against the car?

It’s not one or the other. Car usage only will grow; see the recent statistics. It’s not about eliminating the car, but reducing its encroachment upon the city. I believe we can reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled per person in a place like Miami. It’s already happening. The popularity of South Beach as a place to live and walk has to do with some people’s recognition that living close to amenities, to be able to walk to the market, coffee shop, museums, is a great way to live. And the surge of housing in downtown and the inner core of Miami, along Douglas Road, on Coral Way.

There are opportunities to make great urban places that are not only convenient and comfortable, but also beautiful….We understand that people need environments with aesthetic impact. We can build those places because we have historically. We can do it again.

In spite of those efforts, critics say that you have presented an idyllic image that won’t work with the realities of contemporary America.

That’s a complex topic, but I believe in the broad planning goals that include environmental responsibility, economic sustainability, and social integration, which is admittedly the most difficult for our country because the social isolation or separation has been so thoroughly institutionalized by the building of the physical environment up to now.

One thinks of Brickell …

Yes, the big complexes are here behind this gate; the apartment complexes are over there … this is the worst that it has ever been in our history.

When [the New Urbanism projects of] Seaside [in northern Florida] and Laguna West were being planned, they were meant to be alternatives to this separation…. In retrospect it’s unfortunate that those became elite — they were not intended to be high-end projects, but became so because of their attractiveness…. Things are changing now, there is a slow but steady achievement in the inner cities. People are rebuilding neighborhoods and talking about bringing back [the life on] the city streets, which New Urbanism is very much about. I think it’s the lack of knowledge that makes people think that New Urbanism is for the elite or that it serves only certain people. We have lots of neighborhoods that are [being built] around the country, giving home ownership to people that didn’t have it before.

Mention some hopeful examples in Miami.

The downtown Kendall effort is promising. People for decades in Miami Beach have worked in the [right] direction. I think the City of Miami has a new awakening; there are some good people in the planning department and some of the political leaders are focused on these issues very strongly. But it takes time. The hardest thing is to get the private sector on board, so that the bureaucrats and the elected leaders don’t have to fight them. That’s one of our problems. People are coming here from all over the place, New York, South America, California, they are buying the property around the Performing Arts Center because that’s the next big thing. But they may not have the vision of what the city really needs in the long run, where it has been, and that’s a shame that it has to be a fight rather than three entities working together.

What about the politicians?

Our elected leaders are not sure that this issue is on the agenda of their constituents. We have a lot of immigrants and some are more concerned with a job, making a living, and sending money to family somewhere else. And Miami, as deficient as it may be, is better than where they came from. But it needs to be on our agenda because of the way cities compete globally these days, [as places] where smart people go to look for companies and investment opportunities. The elected people need to know this.