An Old New Urbanist - The Marshall Erdman Academy of Sustainable Design

Internship Report, 2000

11 Pages

Free online reading

1. Preface

This resume was written for the ”New Urban- ism” seminar at the TU Berlin under supervi- sion of Prof. Harald Bodenschatz, teacher of Architectural Sociology. Topic of the seminar were the different flavours of a movement in the USA, called ”New Urbanism”. In this context, the term is used to describe a very complex pro- cess that is taking place in America right now. New Urbanism cannot be seen as a homogeneous movement. It is rather a wide variety of new so- lutions in theory and practice to improve the quality of life in the USA. It is regarded as an American reaction to Urban Sprawl, but also as a reaction to the increasing social problems in urban neighborhoods. In the following, I will present two projects I consider part of this move- ment. However, ”New Urbanism” has many meanings, and there might be disagreement within the groups of protagonists about whether or not the term applies to their projects.

In Summer 1999, I had the chance to do an in- ternship at the Marshall Erdman Academy of Sustainable Design1 in Madison, Wisconsin. The MEASD is a Non-Government-Organization, an independent part of Marshall Erdman & Asso- ciates Inc. Its goal is to ”develop a better under- standing of the regional design process” and ”seek new urban options”2. For example, the Academy proposes higher urban density in or- der to contain Urban Sprawl. In Madison, the Academy tries to achieve these goals by estab- lishing a regional transit system that is supposed to propel dense urban development.

Marshall Erdman & Associates is a company that is responsible for the design and construc- tion of private clinics and hospitals throughout the Midwest of the United States. That usually includes the complete design process, construc- tion supervision as well as the interior design. All clinics are furnished with products of the Marshall Erdman sub-company techline. A late project of Marshall Erdman has also been the design of a mid-sized community in Madison called Middleton Hills.

In the two months of my internship, I worked on plans for the regional transit system called the ”Rail Study Project”. In the following chap- ters, I will describe the situation in Madison and the goals of the project. I will also mention the Middleton Hills Community project by Marshall Erdman & Associates. I will try to put the two projects in the context of the New Urbanism movement and analyze differences and relations between the ”Rail Study Project” and the ”Middleton Hills” Project.

2. Political Context

In order to understand the work of the MEASD, one must understand the situation of Non-Gov- ernment-Organizations (NGOs) in the United States. Compared to Europe, social and ecologi- cal expenses of the government in the United States are rather low. Social and Ecological ac- tivity has always been seen as part of the private responsibility. Therefore, most companies sup- port individual NGOs which have long term so- cial and ecological goals. Naturally, it is not al- lowed to make direct commercial use of the NGOs. However, companies try to drive profit from their independent knowledge and long term work.

During the recent economic boom in the United States, not only commercial firms but also the NGOs have profited. A large amount of money is used to contain the problems that come along with the boom. The new wealth of the middle class and their new demands have led to an ex- plosion of size of the cities that brought along immense land use, irreparable damage to the landscape, traffic jams and a huge increase of national output of Co2. We call this development Urban Sprawl. While this development is still going on, a considerable part of the society now suffers from these problems and has changed their attitudes. On the one hand, many compa- nies now profit from the new demands for a more sustainable living and the great amounts of money that are spent for it. On the other hand, many NGOs with high financial support of now successful companies have become important protagonists of this movement. However, the goals of the NGOs are not necessarily identical eas contain huge monotone sprawl communities. with the goals of those companies. This differ- ence can be seen in the example of the Middleton Hills Project by a successful company and the Rail Study Project by its Non-Profit Organiza- tion.

3. The City of Madison

Madison is the capital of the state of Wiscon- sin in the north of the USA. The city has about 400.000 inhabitants and is considered as very ”livable”. With a very liberal population and a good system of buses and bike-paths, it provides a rather unusually well-functioning urban scen- ery. Madison is a city of high architectural stan- dard influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and John Nolen. However, Urban Sprawl has struck Madi- son as well. While the central districts of the city have beautiful urban spaces, the surrounding ar- Within the fast-growing city, traffic jams and other ecological problems are increasing. A prognosis says that the population of Madison will increase in the next decade by 50,000 in- habitants. Most of these people are expected to settle down in the suburbs, especially in the west of the city. The town of Middleton on the edge of Madison will double its population. Univer- sity Avenue, the main connection between the Isthmus, the center of Madison, and its western suburbs, is already jammed during traffic peak times. Many of the most important spots of Madi- son are situated along this road: the campus of the University of Wisconsin, the UW Hospital, the football stadium, the town center of Middleton as well as many urban communities and important companies. One of them is Marshall Erdman and Associates, a company that owns large parts of the land along Univer- sity Avenue.

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4. Marshall Erdman and the Academy

The MEASD was founded when Professor Philip Lewis jr., teacher of landscape architec- ture at the UW Madison, retired. Marshall Erdman, then president of the company named after him, gave him the opportunity to continue working on his Sustainable Design projects as independent part of the company. The personal relation of Philip Lewis and Marshall Erdman prior to his death plays an important role in the whole process. Mr. Lewis’ Academy of Sustain- able Design is regarded highly in the company. That is not only because he has achieved a lot during his long career as landscape architect and is widely known as FASLA and AICP, but also because he has had a very good relation to Marshall Erdman. In the philosophy of the com- pany, a sustainable design process had always played an important role. Marshall Erdman had always dedicated himself to those topics. How- ever, the company has specialized more and more in clinic construction and has become one of the most important developers in the US. Only in some decisions, the work of the company now intersects the work of the MEASD. The Middleton Hills project by Marshall Erdman was one of these exceptional projects.

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5. Middleton Hills

The planning process for the Middleton Hills community began 1993. In a so-called ”Charette”, the planning comity of Marshall Erdman met with different local groups. Inter- ests were pointed out quickly, and the planing was assigned to the office of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Planter-Zyberk (DPZ)3. The idea of Middleton Hills resembles in substance a typi- cal New Urbanism community4. Its emphasis is put rather on town planning than on architec- ture. The size of the community is based on a calculation of walking distances with a maxi- mum of 400 units and a 10 minute distance. The plan makes use of existing topography in order to create a ”sense of place”5 and make use of natural resources to solve the water drainage problem. Streets are laid out on an irregular grid system. Civic buildings and shops are placed on important spots and serve as landmarks. In the contrary to most of the existing communities, all streets are equipped with sidewalks. The cus- tomers bring in their own architects. However, an architectural code ensures a homogeneous street scenery. Every plan is controlled by a su- pervising comity. Middleton Hills is situated within seven miles of downtown and about one mile from University Avenue. With about half of the units sold, there is no direct bus service to downtown yet. Even though the houses are equipped with modern communication systems, most of the people work outside the community and use their cars to get there. The infrastruc- ture is to serve all periodical needs, but it has not yet reached a state where it is self-sufficient. Many units have been sold successfully by 1999, but not in the expected scale. Ground prices are higher than in other communities. The reasons for that are extra expenses in public spaces and larger, more accurate planning efforts. On the other hand, the average expenses of a family are expected to decrease in the community as soon as the whole infrastructure is completed. There is less need for private transportation, because many shops are within walking distance. Be- sides, there is less need for private space because of the variety of public spaces in the neighbor- hood.

Most people who decide to settle down in Middleton Hills have previously been living in suburban communities and are seeking for al- ternate solutions. Usually, they are very respon- sive to the idea of community, neighborhood and a more sustainable living. They accept the higher costs not only for their own advantages, but also for the idea of a more responsible way of life concerning the environment.

6. The Rail Study Project

While the Middleton Hills Project is still under construction, politicians, urban designers and economic leaders have identified the problems of Urban Sprawl in Madison. Middleton Hills provides a much denser structure than sprawl communities, and it decreases private traffic.

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above left: Map of Middleton Hills left: Philip Lewis jr. in the Academy Office above: Styles taken from the architectural code in Middleton Hills However, inhabitants of Middleton Hills are still highly dependent on cars. They are jamming Uni- versity Avenue every morning just as the inhab- itants of ”Sprawl City” do. Like in European countries, new markets and industries have led to a shift to new sites in most businesses.

During the economic boom of the nineties and the beginning of this decade, planners are seek- ing for solutions for all kinds of new projects, such as expanding companies, new civic projects and changes in infrastructure. With many sites remaining unused, there is a high potential for new development within the city limits. The MEASD has started the Rail Study Project in order to accelerate the development of Urban Infill. The idea is based on the Urban Corridor theory. By guiding the sprawl into these corri- dors, farmlands and so-called Environmental Corridors can be protected. The Environmental Corridors contain most of the natural and cul- tural resources. In the Mid-West of the United States, there is a historic infrastructure of rail lines. Most villages and cities have developed along these rail lines in the turn of the century. The Urban Corridors make use of the spaces along these rail lines in order to make use of the transit potential and old infrastructure. A major goal of the project is to create new public spaces surrounding the stations. Customers will only use public transport if they have access to retail and service for periodic needs. These facilities would develop in small distance to the stations. Land use would be minimized, and the structure of the whole city would become more oriented to- wards these new sub-centers.

In Madison, there is an existing rail system along University Avenue. However, most of the urban development has taken place outside this existing corridor, encouraging sprawl. The tracks are only used for cargo transports. The MEASD listed potential transit stations and their status in 1999 and in the future and met with all land owners in order to discuss possible development. However, there is disagreement about these plans. Opposing groups argue that a larger bus network with better frequencies could serve the same purpose. A new rail system with new tran- sit stations would be too expensive. Some in- habitants of adjacent neighborhoods fear that a transit system would attract people of lower in- come, like university students and welfare-de- pendent people. Neighbors fear noise and pos- sible development of crime in the transit areas. Some argue that new and better ways of trans- portation will encourage even more development outside the city limits. But usually, reactions are rather positive. The transit system serves not only the purpose of reducing private traffic. Inves- tors hope to gain profit from higher retail activi- ties in the station area. Different groups of inter- est have identified the problems which come along with urban sprawl and are now support- ing the plans. Communities along the railroad hope to profit from long term increases of tax income. There is also disagreement about the scale of the system. The city wants to keep com- munity development and transit station retail within the city limits. Adjacent communities and influential companies support a larger regional system in order to connect their outer sites. The transit system has become subject to all kinds of social and political engagement. Meetings with all kinds of groups have shown that political top- ics are far more important for the realization of the transit system than direct economic calcula- tions.

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7. Analysis

Both Middleton Hills and the Rail Study Project can be seen as parts of the New Urbanism move- ment. However, they are influenced by all kinds of interests. In Middleton Hills, Erdman tries to react to the needs of its customers. These needs differ. Some are seeking for the special atmo- sphere of a traditionalist community. Some want a safer place for their children, others have been living too far away from their jobs. The com- pany wants to profit from these demands. The project must not be seen as ideological, it should rather be seen as a possible solution to existing problems. The Rail Study Project to me seemed to be more a subject to all kinds of discussion. The political scale of New Urbanism was far more evident in this case. On the one hand, it

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left above: Sprawl City and Corridor City in the theory of Philip Lewis

left: Transit village in Japan - high density along transit routes and maximum use of agricultural wedges above:

1. A German diesel train proposed for the transit system

2. The Wisconsin Trade Ceter with Main Street towards planned rail tracks

3. The historic train station in Middleton

unified the conservative land owners against it. Some of them believe that huge new develop- ments outside the city are rather a sign of progress than a problem. They believe any kind of government control and public investment to be wrong. On the other hand, the project showed the disagreement within the movement, between environmentalists, traditionalists, the administration of the administration of the city of Madison and that of its suburbs.

8. Duany and Krieger

Andres Duany, the planner of Middleton Hills, has always been subject to heavy criticism. One of his main opponents in public discussions was Alex Krieger, professor of Urban Design at Harvard University. In his speech at the New Urbanism Congress in September 1998, Krieger attacked the whole movement of New Urban- ism. As a supporter of investment in central cit- ies, Krieger believes the claims of the New Ur- banism Movement to be not equal to its achieve- ments. ”To date”, he summarizes, the movement has ”helped produce more subdivisions, [...] den- sities too low to support much mixed use, a new wave of form-follows-function determinism, [...] and carefully edited, rose-colored evocations of small-town urbanism, from which a century ago many Americans fled not to the suburbs but to the city.” Using ”Orwellian New Urbanism New Speak”, the movement, according to Krieger, turned subdivisions into ”towns” and real estate investors into ”town fathers”. He warns not to ”constrict at this propitious moment the possi- bilities of what constitutes urbanism”6. Duany responded to the attacks in an article in the American magazine ARCHITECTURE: ”Noth- ing but prejudice!"7. He points out that every single aspect of the attack is wrong. sprawl, land use, density, traffic, restrictions and codes, pri- vate legislation: Duany claims to have found the ideal and most practicable solution for each of these topics. With 320 units per acre, DPZ com- munities reach a ”typically urban density”.

The polemic exchange of opinions between Krieger and Duany shows that within the move- ment, there is a difference between theory and practice. Until 1998, New Urbanism was seen as an idea full of visionary spirit that would change America and solve all social and eco- nomical problems. Since the sudden breakout of the conflict, the debate has become a major political topic, especially with the Presidential candidature of Al Gore as a major figure in the discussion.

below: Planned rail lines in Madison

right: Sketches of the ideal city show neotraditional villages as well as high density structures

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9. Resume

The MEASD and the Company of Marshall Erdman reflect in a way the debate between Krieger and Duany. But the conflict of the New Urbanism Congress in Seaside has not touched the atmosphere in Madison. Lewis tries to find the way in between. He is described by the American Magazine of Landscape Architecture as ”commonsense visionary”* The plans of the MEASD are far less ideological than they might seem. As part of Marshall Erdman & Associ- ates, the Academy has a direct relation to real- ized projects. Professor Lewis has always been involved in these projects. In the sketches of the Urban Corridor Theory, he included new com- munities like Middleton Hills as parts of the ideal network of sustainable developments. He be- lieves that every single step in the right direc- tion should be seen positively and become part of the whole movement. However, his influence in the company could be higher. His work is not academic theory, but rather an image for a pos- sible development that includes all positive movements. ”I’m a landscape architect,” Lewis states in an interview8, ”Landscape architects are concerned with where to build, where not to build, and what to build.”. With the great sources of land, the company could profit from his ideas. In the last years, the company has put the atten- tion on their large projects. Frank Miller, vice president of the MEASD, is also responsible for the restructuring of the Marshall Erdman head office9. He says that the company was too far away from its own philosophy and did not make enough use of their advantages. With a new single office building designed by the German architect Thomas Herzog, he wants to improve the communication with all parts of the com- pany, including the Academy. In the new build- ing, Professor Lewis might get spaces for an exhibition about his regional design process. The Academy might get new impulse and emerge from the quiet position in the background of political activity. If these plans are successful, Marshall Erdman & Associates will serve as the example for all New Urbanists. A truly sustain- able design process in the spirit of the Wiscon- sin visionaries Aldo Leopold and Frank Lloyd Wright could be combined with the knowledge, philosophy and pragmatism of the company’s founder Marshall Erdman.

The term ”New Urbanism” alone is not a recipe for improvement. Marshall Erdman & Associ- ates could show that only visionary spirit com- bined with constant political work can improve the quality of life in the United States.


1 further mentioned as MEASD

2 in: A Regional Design Process for Sustainability, published by the MEASD

3 Some of the projects by DPZ were reviewed by other members of the class

4 see: Projekte des New Urbanism, Harald Bodenschatz in: bauwelt 12/00

5 from: Presentation of Middleton Hills under

6 Whose Urbanism?, Alex Krieger, from: bauwelt, 12/00, speech at the New Urbanism Congress 1998 in Seaside, FL

7 Nothing but Prejudice!, Andres Duany, ARCHITECTURE, 12/98

8 from: Landscape Architecture Magazine, 07/96

9 from my Interview with Frank Miller in 09/99

11 of 11 pages


An Old New Urbanist - The Marshall Erdman Academy of Sustainable Design
New Urbanism in den USA
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ISBN (eBook)
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Urbanist, Marshall, Erdman, Academy, Sustainable, Design, Urbanism
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Viktor Oldiges (Author), 2000, An Old New Urbanist - The Marshall Erdman Academy of Sustainable Design, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 7/14/2002

    Very good.

    Of course, as a friend of the authors and a Wisconsite, I may not be completely unbiased. But I consider this simply one of the best works in architechtural sociology that Ive ever read.

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