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Tale of Two Cities

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05/27/2016 - Suburban sprawl, the mantra of the second half of the twentieth century, appears to be gasping its last breaths as baby boomers and Millennials alike are seeking cities providing walkability as part of a multi-modal plan in residential, commercial and entertainment districts. Known in the municipal planning field as New Urbanism, it is a process which promotes walkable communities with a mix of housing, businesses and retail establishments while focusing also on local history and ecology. Embraced locally in the 1990s and 2000s, the process continues today to be the dominant trend in urban design, and one that has helped the downtown areas of Birmingham and Rochester continue to flourish, each in its unique way.

At first look, the downtown areas of Birmingham and Rochester couldn't appear more different, with one a mini-city and the other a homey town, but a closer look shows there are as many similarities linking the two municipalities as there are differences that make each a vital and unique part of the communities where they are located.

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Separated by just 17 miles, each city provides a walkable downtown experience for its residents and surrounding communities. With hundreds of thriving businesses in each downtown and two of the highest business occupancy rates of any community in the state, both Birmingham and Rochester seem to have found success.

"It is going exceptionally well. Extraordinarily well because as it happens, people have the feeling that it has always been there, but it hasn't in fact," said Andres Duany, an urban planner from Miami, and mastermind of Birmingham's 2016 Master Plan, which has guided downtown planning in the city for the past two decades.

A renowned architect, Duany is one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. As the organizing body for New Urbanism, it advocates for the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support neighborhoods that are diverse in use and population; communities that are designed for pedestrians, as well as transit and cars; physically defined and accessible public spaces and community institutions; and urban places framed by architecture and landscape that celebrate local history, climate, ecology and building practices.

As one of the pioneers of New Urbanism, city leaders in Birmingham hired Duany, along with other firms, to assist with a 20-year plan for developing the community's downtown. Released in 1996, the plan was updated in 2014 when Duany returned to Birmingham to weigh in on the city's progress.

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