Walk far enough in any major city, and you’ll notice its failures: trash-strewn lots, monolithic buildings on main pedestrian streets, and isolated pockets of public housing. Drive through suburbia, and you’ll see circuitous subdivisions, tired retail sectors, and office parks trapped by ribbons of highway.
David Dixon, FAIA, sees something different. Instead of deadly monotony, there are humanly scaled urban buildings, blocks that mix housing with offices, and ground-floor retail in bustling residential areas. He also sees suburbs that are compact, complex, and lively enough to attract the young, skilled workers that existing businesses need to grow.
Dixon, principal in charge of urban design and planning at Boston-based Goody Clancy, has helped propel the smart growth movement into the 21st century, over terrain that is vastly more complex than it was 35 years ago. He began his work in the mid-1970s, when the push for transit-oriented development was more about reducing energy consumption than about something you could build an economy around. But he has always been guided by a core credo he borrowed from Louis Kahn, his professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We are never handed a paradigm that explains everything,” he says. “We are taught a world view that is dominant at a point in time. One of our jobs is to test it, explore it, and find what comes next.”
Density: From Negative to Positive
Dixon, who holds master’s degrees in architecture and urban design from Penn and Harvard, came of age professionally at a time when urban design was beginning to focus on redeveloping existing communities rather than demolishing the city’s depressed areas. After a short stint with Harry Weese and Associates in Chicago, he returned to Boston, working on transit-oriented development at a handful of urban design firms. Much of his time was spent engaging community groups up and down the planned Orange Line extension from Boston to its northern suburbs, and the reconfigured Southwest Corridor. For five years he also ran his own firm, David Dixon and Associates, before joining Goody Clancy in 1991.
While studying at Harvard, Dixon worked at the Boston office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which was headed by a charismatic fellow named Peter Hopkinson. “He used to say, ‘A word is worth a thousand pictures’—most people communicate verbally,” Dixon recalls. “Architects are constantly trying to draw pictures to explain ideas, but they’re not always successful. I was told that I was better at thinking than drawing.”
Two events in particular crystallized his calling as a thinker, researcher, and communicator. In 2001, as president-elect of the Boston Society of Architects (BSA), he co-chaired a smart-growth conference called How We Live, which led to the formation of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, with the BSA as lead sponsor.
That was followed, once he became president, with the first national conference to tackle urban design’s toughest challenge: the fear of density. Yet as he talked to research organizations such as the Urban Land Institute in preparation for the event, even he was amazed at the strength of his case. Since 1970, the number of married couples with children had fallen by half, to 20 percent of all households. “We had changed very rapidly in ways that had a lot to do with household size and where people would want to live,” he says. “Even in the real estate industry this wasn’t thought about.”
The symposium, “Density: Myth and Reality,” attracted 400 city and state government officials, planners, architects, developers, and journalists. Diane Georgopulos, FAIA, an architect at MASSHousing and a member of the planning committee, recalls: “David’s energy level about the issue was so refreshing compared to the usual ponderous statistics about housing. He was able to capture imagination at a different level and across a very broad range of stakeholders. It came as a consequence of drilling into the data and coming up with profound connections between location and demand.”
Every plan issuing from Dixon’s office comes with a numbers-based snapshot of the underlying market and the values that redevelopment can achieve. Goody Clancy works with consultants such as Zimmerman/Volk Associates to analyze emerging housing markets, with W-ZHA to explore public-private partnerships on commercial ventures, and with MJB on psychographics—local values, tastes, and aspirations that suggest what kinds of retail can succeed. Rather than trying to create demand, Dixon demonstrates that the demand is already there.
“He’s on top of everything he does and loves to work with people,” says Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, FAIA. “He gains wisdom from every project, which becomes a valuable resource for the whole community.”
Two current projects illustrate Dixon’s conviction that design can be an effective means of mustering a community’s physical, intellectual, and economic resources. One is East Franklinton, a poor neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, being developed by the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. It calls for 2,000 new housing units, a robust arts component, and affordable housing for artists.
“We’re taking the most depressed part of Columbus and saying a vigorous new mixed-income neighborhood can be built there in five years by groups of different developers and will have strong market appeal,” Dixon says. “This was something that literally no one believed in eight months ago.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the firm also is creating a downtown for Dublin, Columbus’ wealthiest and most competitive suburb for class A office space. Dublin had projected about 10 million square feet of growth, all sprawl, in high-end subdivisions and office parks. At least half of that is being channeled into 1,000 rezoned acres, called Bridge Street Corridor, on a series of failed office parks.
“This is radical in a community of high-income, politically conservative people who moved there for golf courses,” Dixon says. The change, though, is driven by employers who are starting to get nervous about their ability to grow. In the past two years, it’s become clear that the U.S. has a shortage of educated young workers who are essential for a thriving economy, he says. The folks that communities like Dublin need to capture want lofts and walkability. “If they want Dublin to grow, and people to buy single-family houses in 10 years, this is how to get people to come.”
But for Dixon, at 65, this is only the beginning of a much steeper learning curve. An urgent issue now is what designers can do for a society where the poverty level is rising. For people who can’t get the education they need to fill those labor shortages, it will be a much tougher life. What’s necessary now, he says, is to widen the circle, cross-referencing with experts in education, public health, and job training.
“I have to acknowledge that all the things I’m excited about are only half the battle,” Dixon says. “Those are some dots we all need to figure out how to connect.”